The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972) poster

The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)


USA. 1972.


Director – Waris Hussein, Screenplay – Grimes Grice & Matt Robinson, Based on the Novel by Ramona Stewart, Producer [uncredited] – Martin Poll, Photography – Arthur J. Ornitz, Music – Joe Raposo, Production Design – Peter Murton. Production Company – ITC/Halworth Productions.


Shirley MacLaine (Norah Benson), Perry King (Joel Delaney), Barbara Trentham (Sherry Talbot), Miriam Colon (Veronica Savez), Edmundo Rivera Alvarez (Don Pedro), David Elliott (Peter Benson), Lisa Kohane (Carrie Benson), Lovelady Powell (Dr Erika Laurents)


Wealthy New York socialite Norah Benson frees her brother Joel Delaney from a psychiatric hospital where he has been committed after attacking his landlord. Taking him to stay at her apartment, she soon finds his behaviour increasingly erratic – he takes to speaking in Spanish and then she finds his girlfriend’s severed head in a refrigerator. This is identical to a series of killings conducted by Puerto Rican killer Tonio Perez. Norah is shocked to find Tonio was Joel’s best friend while Joel was living in the ghetto. As Joel takes her and her two children prisoner at a beach house, she comes to realize that Joel has been possessed by the spirit of Tonio.

This interesting Possession film came along two years before The Exorcist (1973). It does not feature any vomitings or crucifix masturbations and is made with a relatively low key approach that didn’t create the sensation that The Exorcist did. However, it does have a far more interesting sociological undertow than The Exorcist does.

The film’s thesis is simple enough – the Manhattan upper classes have been exploiting the Puerto Rican immigrants and from there the film fairly much follows the tradition of the 1960s/70s counter-culture film, using the vengeful spirit of a Puerto Rican serial killer in effect to rip apart the guarded world of Manhattan upper-class privilege.

However, The Possession of Joel Delaney is more daring in use of possession as a metaphor than The Exorcist ever was. The Possession of Joel Delaney is about what a privileged class fears beyond their door; The Exorcist effectively never even opens that door – it was all about quashing the symbolic alienation and rebellion of the children of middle-class privilege and coming down on the side of the middle-class.

Shirley MacLaine and Perry King in The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)
Shirley MacLaine and her brother Joel Delaney (Perry King)

Rather than The Exorcist‘s confinement to a single bedroom, The Possession of Joel Delaney sets itself in the streets of New York, which are portrayed with the realism of grainy film stock and gritty street level photography. Particularly good is one scene where Shirley MacLaine has just left the brujo Don Pedro’s shop and is forced to walk through the slum streets. Her colour and dress starts to become (to her) something that alienates her and both she and the camera become increasingly anxious, although the  people around her do not in any way appear to be reacting oddly to her presence. The exorcism, set to Latino dance rhythms with everybody moving in a cacophonous frenzy, is interesting to watch, if solely for the fact that it is devoid of the post-Exorcist Catholic cant that entirely dominated the cinematic concept of exorcism.

Director Waris Hussein direct some eerie scares – like the scene when Perry King suddenly starts talking in Spanish at a party – and some effective outright shocks – the discovery of the decapitated head. The film mounts to a good climax where Perry King, performing very convincingly, forces everybody at knifepoint to dance, to strip for him and, in one unnerving scene, to eat dogfood from a bowl. The twist ending – before such a twist became a cliche – is also effective.

Waris Hussein was an Indian born director who spent almost his entire career working in British television. He made no other genre works but his one note of distinction is directing the very first episode of Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005– )

Trailer here

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