Before There Was ‘The Exorcist’, There Was ‘The Possession of Joel Delaney’

Some of the best horror movies were filmed in the ’70s. There was no CGI back then, and to compensate, filmmakers had to be more creative. Films like Halloween, The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and The Exorcist were all products of the time, and were not only instrumental in creating a lot of the horror clichés of today, they also pushed boundaries, previously un-pushed. The Possession of Joel Delaney is no exception.

This forgotten 1972 film directed by Waris Hussein has been compared to Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which came out a year later. Based on the 1970 novel by Ramona Stewart, the story concerns upper crust East Sider Norah Benson, a recently divorced mother of two children, Carrie and Peter. Norah is adapting to life as a single mother. She has a housekeeper Veronica to help her with the household, the novel she’s working on and her children to keep her busy, and her brother Joel Delaney to keep her company. She and her brother are close, Norah having practically raised him after they lost their parents.

Despite their closeness, the two are very different. While Norah is puritanical and frightened of anything foreign (particularly New York Puerto Ricans), Joel is a free spirit who frequently travels, having recently returned from Tangiers. He’s also open to new things, like living in a seedy apartment in Spanish Harlem, much to Norah’s alarm. What neither of them knows is that before Joel lived there, a serial killer named Tonio Perez died there.

Things start going awry when Norah receives a bizarre phone call from Joel one night. After going to her brother’s apartment, she finds him incoherent and speaking in a strange voice. She also finds a mysterious switchblade. She has him admitted to Bellevue, and from there, the real trouble starts.

Stewart’s novel is written from the point of view of Norah. The book is a well-written, fluid read and Stewart gives Norah a strong narrative voice. She swiftly carries the reader through her brother’s rapid decline, the discovery of women’s decapitated heads around New York, and the possibility that Joel is the killer and possessed by Tonio Perez’s spirit. Norah reveals she’s nervous, uptight, and in complete denial of what’s going on around her.

However, Stewart manages to make her likeable. While Norah has her flaws, she’s a decent person and her circumstances as a lonely, newly single mother caught in a familial tragedy make her sympathetic. And also that she’s the only one looking out for the animals in the book.

In the film, a young, gorgeous Shirley MacLaine plays Norah. She takes the character and transfers her onto the screen naturally as if no one else could have done the job. Like Stewart, MacLaine gets the viewer to empathize with this otherwise unlikable character. Handsome newcomer, Perry King, plays an excellent Joel Delaney. He switches back and forth seamlessly from fresh-faced and innocent to sinister, giving the character an extra creep factor. When the viewer gets to the final scene of the film, he’s positively terrifying.

Another important character in the story is New York. From the Upper East Side to Spanish Harlem. the city’s urban landscape is always present. When she visits Spanish Harlem, Norah sees her surroundings as a threat. While this fear was symptomatic of the era in New York, Roberts’ descriptions do a fantastic job of reminding the reader of how so many people viewed urban immigrants in the ’70s.

“We turned Veronica’s corner at One Hundred and Fourth Street and had to stop for a cart sporting a red and green umbrella, whose peddler was selling ice to a mob of children… I passed more domino games. A woman leaning out a window was shouting in Spanish to three women seated on kitchen chairs on the sidewalk… With tightening stomach, I approached the door like a jumper beginning his run.”

Then there are the bits about the Upper East Side – the parties, the money, and particularly the fashion. When the reader is introduced to Joel’s girlfriend, Sherry, and his psychiatrist, Erica, Roberts gives a fashion rundown on each woman. The film picks up on the same thing, capturing the glamour and couture of New York high society. MacLaine is outfitted in outlandish hats and expensive-looking coats as she runs around Manhattan looking distressed.

Despite its fashion sense, the movie’s cinematography and editing is indicative of bad B movies of the ’70s. The pace is choppy, the transitions from one scene to the next are erratic, and there are some scenes like the Santeria exorcism ceremony last for so long, it’s tempting to turn the whole thing off.

But then things change during the film’s final scene when Norah and her kids are at their secluded beach house and Joel turns up unexpectedly in mirrored shades, toting a switchblade. Suddenly the story is paced evenly and the viewer may wish for the weird edits again because the final, chilling culmination is so nail-biting, it stayed with me from the time I saw the movie at nine years old until I saw it again when it was released on DVD in 2008.

This is also where the film strays most from the book, while it had stayed considerably close to the book until this point. Suddenly everything gets extra traumatizing and exaggerated. In the book, these things never happened: Norah discovers Joel’s psychiatrist’s decapitated head on top of the refrigerator, Joel forces his niece to eat dog food from a dog dish, Joel forces his nephew to strip and dance naked on a coffee table while he watches (this was a young, underage boy who was filmed completely nude), and Joel kisses his sister full on the mouth.

The final twist, which I’ll refrain from giving away, is not the same as the final twist in the book. It’s a more disturbing wrap-up than the book’s more subtle, eerie ending. Once again, the film industry came in and took a perfectly creepy book and upped the sensationalism because nothing can ever be too shocking in Hollywood.

Having said that, this film is memorable and a must-see for any fan of horror movies or weird ’70s flicks. It was even entered in the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival. The book, which I liked even more, will appeal to anyone who likes a tense read. Not only a horror genre novel, The Possession of Joel Delaney is also a tight psychological thriller.