Shirley MacLaine picks her nose at a party within a couple minutes of The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), so you gotta see it for that.
Within these wealthy spoilt & decadent circles, McLaine as Nora is a devorcee, mother of two, obsessively concerned with the life of her baby brother Joel (Perry King).
He is not the innocent youth he pretends & is in fact menacing toward Nora's children. He seems to have some sort of emotional break-down into violent madness & is sent to a psychiatric unit.
When let out of Bellevue, he has to stay with his overprotective sister. There's something distinctly unwholesome about their relationship. When he's not being inappropriately intimate with her, he's being verbally cruel. Nora's possessiveness of him induces her to ignore his cruelties while accepting warmly his friendly touches.
His behavior as a selfish young man becomes increasingly sinister as he gives evidence of a second personality, one that speaks vulgar Spanish & whose nature is angry & sadistic. The unspeakable murder of Joel's girlfriend Sherry (Barbara Trentham) brings police into their lives. But where is Sherry's head? And could Joel be the killer?
Nora begins her own quest for answers that may help her brother. Having learned he has secretly practiced voodoo, she follows the lead into the Puerto Rican Santaria community of Spanish Harlem.
Peasant priest Don Pedro (Edmundo Rivera Alvarez) already knows "all about" Joel Delaney, who he asserts is possessed by the evil spirit of a serial decapitator, Tonio Perez.
Nora is slow to believe this, but willing to go along with Don Pedro attempting a long-distance exoercism.
The ritual has an intensity about it, & the actor playing Don Pedro conveys such authenticity, that it hardly seemed possible this sequence was only actors! The strength of it is in the acting -- Shirley really puts some sweat into her performance -- & evokes horror without need of special effects.
The exorcism fails over such distance. It's necessary to bring her brother into the group to try again. "But you have to believe. If you don't believe, we can do nothing."
Joel meanwhile is wigging out as though indeed possessed. So Nora takes her kids & splits for an isolated beach house to be safe.
But in such stories as this, being isolated is never safe, & sure enough, Joel shows up, with Tonio in complete control. He procedes to torment Nora & the kids, & we get a bloody climax plus a predictable but pretty good fillip.
Based on a novel by Ramona Stewart, this is a decent precursor to The Exorcist (1973), with some shocking menace toward Nora's children, such as would be unexpectedly appalling even in today's increasingly tasteless horror. An atmosphere of malevolence is well sustained, & the incestuous subtext is as disturbing as the supernatural ingredient.
It's obvious right from the opening party sequence that Joel & Nora's relationship has always been unwholesome, yet the theme of incest is submerged. Quite likely, the intimation of Joel & Nora's incest might've provided the doorway of taboo through which Tonio was able to gain possession of Joel. Yet Nora, clearly a willing participant if not instigator of their relationship, is never ill-judged by the script & she remains the hero of the piece.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl