Director: Waris Hussein
Legend Films

Echoing Paramount’s earlier hit, ROSEMARY’S BABY, which also used Manhattan effectively as a backdrop for supernatural going-ons, THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY was made several years before “exorcism” pictures had come into vogue. Even with the dated early 1970s ambiance, the film holds up as a well-acted thriller will some decent shocks, giving Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine her only bonafide starring role in what can be deemed a horror film. A prime candidate for rediscovery, THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY has now been released on DVD by Legend Films, in their exclusive arrangement with Paramount Pictures.

In New York City, Norah Benson (MacLaine) is a wealthy divorcee who spends her time as a socialite when she’s not looking after her two young children, Carrie (Lisa Kohane) and Peter (David Elliott). Her younger brother Joel (a baby-faced Perry King in his first starring role) has troubles. A violent clash with a building superintendent lands him in Bellevue, but Joel has no recollection of the incident, and is soon released from the hospital under the care of a shrink (Lovelady Powell), but Norah is now the one constantly looking after him. Joel’s behavior gets increasingly worse, culminated by violent outbursts in which he talks in Spanish in another man's voice. To make matters worse, the girl he was seeing is found beheaded in her apartment. On the advice of Norah’s ex-maid (Miriam Colon), she seeks the help of Don Pedro (Edmundo Rivera Álvarez), a well known Spanish Harlem resident who practices Santeria. Don Pedro is convinced that the spirit of a 17-year old Puerto Rican murderer has taken over Joel’s body, and that the only way to help him is through exorcism, but Norah’s snooty doctor friends tell her otherwise.

Based on a novel by Ramona Stewart, THE POSSESSION JOEL DELANEY works for a number reasons, first and foremost that it assimilates the idea of demonic possession on a more plausible level, with events that take place hidden in the underbelly of Manhattan. A sequence depicting a ritualistic Santeria (a Cuban-originated voodoo-like religion) ceremony in a small apartment is almost documentary-like, and the climax which has Norah and her kids -- hiding out in a secluded beach house -- receiving a surprise visit from the possessed Joel, is tense and even somewhat controversial in content. Director Waris Hussein (whose wonderful 1971 film MELODY is still not available on DVD) is adept at showing sorted characters interact, whether it be the culture clashes between the poorer classes and the so-called elite (a theme which is explored throughout the film) or the ambiguous, almost intimate relationship between Norah and her brother. MacLaine is very good as Norah, starting off as someone carefree and laid-back, but quickly becoming very active and at times vulnerable when her family is in harm’s way. Familiar British actor Michael Hordern is cast as a doctor and gets special billing, but he’s hardly in the film. Television junkies will recognize Earle Hyman as Cliff Huxtable’s dad on “The Cosby Show,” and the late Pat Ast (REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS) has an uncredited non-speaking role as a mental patient.

Once a prime-time movie event staple on ABC, THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY was released on VHS by Paramount years ago, with the long-awaited DVD release finally here. The film is presented here in a clean 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and looks quite good, with excellent clarity and picture detail. Aside from some slightly muted colors during the opening credit sequence, and one or two brief scenes which look a bit too warm, the colors look great overall, and it’s easy to say the film never looked better. The English mono audio is sufficient, with clear dialog and music. There are no subtitle options, but the disc is close captioned. (George R. Reis)

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