The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972) dir. Waris Hussein
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Perry King, Michael Hordern, Lovelady Powell, Barbara Trentham and Edmundo Rivera Alvarez
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
Santeria is some scary shit and has largely been ignored by horror films. This might have something to do with the fact that it’s a religion and therefore politically incorrect to drag it into the realm of such a “lowly” genre. That said, political correctness has never reared its ugly head when Catholicism or other religions are delightfully exploited for similar purposes, so one can only gather that either Liberal-minded creators are happy to exploit the dominant European religions, but unable to bring themselves to do so for the saintly Third World blend of Jesus-worship and voodoo or it might be that they just haven’t had their thinking caps skewed in the direction of Santeria. That said, this 70s thriller goes whole hog on the Santeria front and includes one freaky exorcism sequence that blends some very cool Latin musical stylings with all the shrieking, convulsing and chanting you can handle.
“The Possession of Joel Delaney” is seriously flawed, but still manages to effectively raise the hackles on a number of fronts – not the least of which is its creepy, deliberate pace as we’re treated to the tale of a wealthy, fur-laden New York housewife (Shirley MacLaine) who slowly comes to realize that her messed-up lay-about brother (our title character – marvelously played by Perry King in his first feature film role) is possessed by the spirit of a now-dead serial killer who delights in severing the heads of his female (‘natch) victims with one Mother of a switchblade.
It’s a movie rife with all sorts of interesting shadings – undertones of incest, the wide gap between rich and poor, the dichotomous cultures of WASPS and Puerto Ricans and, most fascinating of all, the backdrop of Santeria. Unfortunately, the movie is marred by some really clunky direction and a clutch of dreadful performances.
Director Waris Hussein seemed an unlikely choice for this film adaptation of Ramona Stewart’s very cool novel which kept this feller up for several late nights as a kid – clutching a flashlight under the blankets to keep reading, but to also ward off fear of the dark. Hussein’s previous directorial attempts included the extremely entertaining counter-culture kiddie sleeper hit ”Melody” (replete with a classic BeeGees score and that double-infusion of “Oliver” star wattage Mark Lester and Jack Wild) and the whimsical, delightful Gene Wilder comedy “Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx”. He clearly seems out of his element with this material and it’s certainly one of the oddest studio pictures I’ve seen from this period since it equally balances some really effective sequences with moments that raise Ed Wood to the heights of Bergman.
Even Shirley MacLaine seems weirdly unsuited to the requirements of the picture. She handles the rich-bitchiness of the role with considerable assuredness, but many of her other emotions feel forced and even annoyingly shrill. The latter performance flaw is especially odd when she’s called upon to be vaguely caring and/or maternal. It’s so insanely uneven that one can only think she felt she was slumming and wrong-headedly thought she needed to mix things up to keep it interesting for her.
MacLaine isn’t, however, the only one rendering a bad performance. Many of the American and British actors in the film feel like they are foreigners dubbed into English, though they clearly are English-speaking thespians recorded mostly with synch sound. Only Perry King is dubbed with any regularity, but at least that makes sense for his character since his voice is only replaced when he is speaking Spanish in the tones of the serial killer’s demon spirit. In fact, King delivers one of the best performances and it’s clear why he went on to become a popular leading man in the 70s (though strangely, he never quite reached the heights of his contemporaries).
Aside from King, the only performances of note come from the Puerto Rican actors Hussein cast in supporting roles. One of the most memorable and stirring appearances in the picture comes from Edmundo Rivera Álvarez as the Santerian exorcist Don Pedro. He’s only on-screen in two scenes, but he is so riveting – blending compassion with religious fervor – that one almost wished he had more scenes. In fact, it might have been far more interesting to expand his role to the size of that of Max Von Sydow’s in “The Exorcist” (that little 70s possession picture that has definitely outshone this one). Interestingly, Álvarez was a prominent actor, director and playwright in Puerto Rico who, in spite of his prolific work in his home country never found a place in mainstream Hollywood cinema and died in relative poverty and obscurity.
For all its problems, though, “The Possession of Joel Delaney” is still a picture worth seeing – especially for fans of the horror genre. It has enough creepy moments to keep one glued to the screen. It’s also yet another bold DVD release from Legend Films – taking an obscure picture from the Paramount catalogue and getting it out in the world for all to see.
And for a glimpse at a small, but dynamic performance by Edmundo Rivera Álvarez and the Santeria action, it’s worth yet another tip of the hat to Legend.