Friday, July 31, 2015

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY 1972

An urban classist xenophobist socioeconomic commentary supernatural occult suspense thriller 

One big reason I adore the films of the 1970s so much is because at no other time in the history of motion pictures can one find so many mainstream films that are just so off-the-chart, batshit crazy. For reasons both cultural and industry-related, it was a freer, more risk-taking time, resulting in a slew of exhilaratingly oddball feature films wholly deserving of the attribution, “Only in the 70s!”
Shirley MacLaine as Norah Benson
Perry King as Joel Delaney
Miriam Colon as Veronica
Lovelady Powell as Erika Lorenz
Edmundo Rivera Alvarez as Don Pedro
Barbara Trentham as Sherry Talbot
When I was a teen, San Francisco’s Market Street was the weekend movie-going destination for me and my friends. The bustling commercial boulevard was lined with one movie house after another offering a staggering selection to choose from, virtually all double or triple features, at kid-friendly matinee prices ($.75 cents). Memorable for the elaborate, hyperbole-laden promotional displays and cutouts featured in the glass cases that flanked the ticket booths of their recessed outer lobbies, most were second-run movie theaters like The Embassy (with its Ten-O-Win wheel spin giveaways) and The Strand; others, like The Warfield and The Crest, were full-on grindhouses showcasing the best in exploitation: kung-fu action films, westerns, blaxploitation, and those inexplicably popular doberman movies.

I first became aware of the occult thriller, The Possession of Joel Delaney, while walking on Market Street one saturday in 1972 and being stopped in my tracks by the sight of this arresting poster staring out at me from of a theater’s “Coming Soon” display case:
I still have this poster, which I purchased back in 1974
Gadzooks! What a cool poster!
Not only was I seized by the eye-catching graphic and provocative tagline, but here was a genre film (I was very much into scary movies at the time) headlined by an Oscar-nominated, A-list actress, whose name was commonly associated with light comedies, musicals, and the occasional serious drama. I was stoked!

Always peripherally aware of Shirley MacLaine growing up, I was never what you’d call a fan. I remember she always seemed to be impersonating Japanese women in her movies (My Geisha -1962 / Gambit -1966), and while I thought she was funny enough in froth like Ask Any Girl (1959) and All in a Night’s Work (1961), her being so consistently cast as the object of sexual desire confused me. Was she supposed to be sexy? (This was back in the Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Totie Fields era when,  in order to considered funny, women were encouraged to be the opposite of sexually appealing). So, while MacLaine always exuded a kind of pert and personable screen personality, she just didn’t seem to register with me very strongly

That indifference changed in 1969 when I fell in love with her in Sweet Charity, after which she became a lasting favorite. So much so that I subsequently caught up with a lot of her old films on The Late Show, and even subjected myself to her short-lived, fairly awful, 1971 TV series, Shirley’s World.
Worlds Apart
African tribal masks, divested of their spiritual and cultural significance, are mere
decorative objects d'art in this swank Manhattan Penthouse

So, when did I see The Possession of Joel Delaney? I didn’t.

That is to say, I didn’t get to see it when I really wanted to. I saw it in the early 1980s, not back when I was fourteen, impressionable, and easily scared. When this darkly intense, exceptionally creepy little thriller could have really done a number on my head.

What did me in was my still-existent habit of repeat-watching movies I like. 1972 saw the release of Cabaret, The Godfather, What’s Up, Doc?, Lady Sings the Blues, The Poseidon Adventure, The Getaway, and Sleuth. All faves I saw numerous times, always telling myself I’d see Shirley MacLaine’s film “next weekend....” Well, when a film performs as poorly at the boxoffice as The Possession of Joel Delaney, “next weekend” is over before you know it. I snoozed and I lost.
But the wait was worth it.
Wealthy divorcee Norah Benson (MacLaine) lives an insular, privileged life in the Upper East Side Manhattan apartment she shares with her two pre-teen children, Peter and Carrie (David Elliot & Lisa Kohane). When not lording despotically over Puerto Rican domestic, Veronica (Mariam Colon), Norah dotes obsessively and possessively over her aimless younger brother, Joel (King). Much to Norah’s chagrin, Joel, whose social principles are very much at odds with those of his sister, has denounced the advantages of their family’s wealth. Instead he has chosen to live in a shabby apartment in the East Village given to him by his friend, Tonio Perez. A young man unknown to Norah of whom Joel says, “He’s just about the only close friend I ever had. He stands for everything Norah hates.”
After Joel suffers a violent episode that lands him in Bellevue (a physical assault he has no recollection of committing), Norah, suspecting drug use, insists he move in with her (“It’ll be just like old times, Joel. We’ll have such fun together!”), and see psychiatrist and family friend, Ericka Lorenz (Lovelady Powell).
"Joel, why do you live down there with those people?"
Norah's children, Carrie (Lisa Kohane) and Peter (David Elliot), listen in as Norah
 obsesses over Joel's whereabout

While Norah’s almost incestuous preoccupation with her brother is appeased by their new living arrangement, Joel’s own behavior grows increasingly uncharacteristic and erratic. Dangerously so. He erupts in outbursts of Spanish profanities, afterward claiming he doesn't speak the language. He grows possessive and sexually violent with his girlfriend, Sherry (Trentham), behaves inappropriately with his sister and nephews, and overall seems changed by his inexplicably close friendship with Perez. A young man suspected by police to be involved in a rash of beheadings in Central Park.
Tonio Perez (Jose Fernandez) shares Joel's contempt for the upper classes
They also share a deep-rooted resentment of women perceived to be dominating
Without divulging more of the plot than the film’s own title affirms, suffice it to say that on the topic of living arrangements, Joel’s body can be said to have become an involuntary sublet to a particularly twisted homicidal maniac.
On the way to its tense, almost unwatchably disturbing climax, The Possession of Joel Delaney reveals itself to be a fairy riveting mix of suspense and social commentary.
Both a worthy offspring of Rosemary’s Baby’s religion-as-cult urban horror, and a fittingly grisly (albeit comparatively subdued) exorcism precursor to 1973s game changer, The Exorcist.
Urban Jungle

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
In an earlier essay on the classic film Rosemary’s Baby, I related how so many of my favorite horror films are those which derive from or reflect upon the anxieties and tensions of the time. These films, serving as shrouded emotional outlets, allow for the safe venting of fears hidden deep within the collective psyche. Fears usually rendered inaccessible by virtue of their immediacy. Taking the position that all horror films are all in some way socially revealing, The Possession of Joel Delaney then provides an ideal time-capsule glimpse into the race/class tensions of big cities in the 1970s.  
New York during this time was, from a humanity viewpoint, a real-life horror story and something of a tragedy. The city - destitute, decaying dangerous under the weight of political, economic, and racial tensions too labyrinthine to go into here – was on the brink of social and economic collapse. 
Hispanic Panic
Norah's excursion to Spanish Harlem results in a full-throttle attack of xenophobia
While white flight, labor unions, and classism contributed to the wealth divide pitting the haves against the have nots; the close confines of the city, coupled with the great disparity in the quality of life experienced by its ethnic populations, fed urban fear amongst New York's advantaged whites. Specifically in regard to the city’s Puerto Rican population, which increased following “The Great Migration” of the 50s.
The squalor of 70s-era New York has played a role, either significant or atmospheric, in American movies as diverse as: Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), The Out-of-Towners (1970),  Little Murders (1970), The Panic in Needle Park (1971),  Klute (1971), and MacLaine's own 1971 drama, Desperate Characters, which plays something like a prequel to this. But The Possession of Joel Delaney (so gritty Travis Bickle could have been the cinematographer) is the first film to put classist race-fear and the city’s socioeconomic divide in service of the horror genre.
In this film about spirit possession, Christian beliefs are replaced by the voodoo-like rituals of Puerto Rican Santeria. Norah finds her skepticism challenged in this harrowing exorcism scene

PERFORMANCES
As probably everybody knows by now, William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, wrote the character of actress Chris MacNeil for and about Shirley MacLaine. Reagan was sketchily based on MacLaine's daughter, Sachi (although, contrary to what her mother claims, Sachi denies the blurry photo of a girl on the cover of the hardback is her). MacLaine was offered the the opportunity to play herself in the film version (a role which went to Ellen Burstyn), but being as she was under contract to Sir Lew Grade (producer of this film, her TV series, and Desperate Characters) she had to decline.

More's the pity, for if her performance in The Possession of Joel Delaney is any indication of what she could deliver as Linda Blair's mom, she would really have given the devil his due,.
MacLaine is the emotional lynchpin in The Possession of Joel Delaney, and her performance is one of my favorites. There's an art to playing an unsympathetic, sympathetic character, and MacLaine finds that narrow line and walks it like a tightrope. She really is outstanding, and the film belongs to her. I especially like the ease with which she inhabits all sides of her character. The good, the bad, and the slightly icky.
Simpatico Siblings
In his first major feature film role, Perry King, who at times resembles, alternately, Jodie Foster and Bridget Fonda, is fine when called upon to mercurially shift from nice guy to nut case.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
No matter how clever or provocative the framework upon which the premise of a horror film is draped, the proof of any good thriller is if it works. And this one does. The Possession of Joel Delaney is, to paraphrase Clifford Odets, a cookie full of arsenic and a vitriol valentine to urban class conflict. All balanced precariously between being the realization of a racist’s worst nightmare, and an ethnic-culture revenge fantasy.
Alas, it's a balance the film, for all its effectiveness a spellbindingly claustrophobic chiller, is not completely successful in maintaining.
Warhol star Pat Ast has a brief bit as a Bellevue patient appreciative of Norah's fur coat

A movie fashioned as an indictment of classism and race-fear runs the same risk as a film designed to condemn sexism or violence against women: if not handled delicately, said film can wind up actually BEING the very thing it attempts to excoriate. For example, on initial release, Bryan Forbes’ brilliant The Stepford Wives (1973) was misinterpreted as being sexist, in spite of the entire thrust of the narrative being a sendup of the absurdity of sexism. 
In spite of frequent attempts to present Norah's regressive, racist attitudes in the most negative light possible, The Possession of Joel Delaney is considered by many to be unappetizingly racist in its depiction of Puerto Ricans as mysterious and inherently dangerous “others.”
A valid point, but one I attribute more to flaws in direction than in the film itself. For the most part, the events of The Possession of Joel Delaney are seen from the perspective of Norah Benson, a character we know to be the worst kind of upper class snob (To Joel:“Look, I’m not naïve. I know there’s poverty around, but one doesn’t have to seek it out. I don’t have to and you don’t have to either”).
The Possession of Joel Delaney would have benefitted from more scenes like the one where Norah seeks assistance from her maid, Veronica. The deferential domestic is revealed to be a self-assured woman wise to the realities of class disparity.

Had the film remained true to this initial setup and presented events as unfolding exclusively from Norah’s narrow-minded point of view, The Possession of Joel Delaney, in my judgement, could have achieved what I think it set out to do: to show that Norah’s fear and mistrust of Puerto Ricans is a barrier between her fully comprehending (or taking seriously) what is happening.
Unfortunately, The Possession of Joel Delaney occasionally drops the subjective perspective and shifts to the omniscient eye of the observer. We're shown things Norah would never be privy to (Joel's psychiatric sessions, his aggressive treatment of his girlfriend, his staking out his psychiatrist's apartment). Since the depiction of Puerto Ricans as threatening, impenetrably mysterious "others" doesn't change, the point of view of the entire film morphs into that of a character we have been shown to to be, at best, a casual racist.
It's obvious to me this isn't what the filmmakers were going for at all (in fact, quite the opposite) but a failure to understand narrative perspective plays havoc with The Possession of Joel Delaney's socially conscious intentions.
Ramona Stewart's 1970 novel was adapted for the screen by the late African-American writer / producer / actor, Matthew Robinson (in collaboration with Irene Kamp). Robinson was one of the original developers and producers of Sesame Street, appearing onscreen as the character, Gordon, and giving voice to the puppet, Roosevelt Franklin. Robinson later went on to become a writer and producer on The Cosby Show for seven years. 
Rounding out this "R"-rated film's curious, Sesame Street connection, The Possession of Joel Delaney has a score written by Academy Award-nominee, Joe (It's Not Easy Being Green) Raposo. Composer for The Great Muppet Caper and TV's Sesame Street and The Electric Company.
If anyone has a problem with this movie, it usually has to do with its concluding fifteen minutes.
Even as much as I like it, I'm not always up to rewatching it to the end.
Excessive to some, unnecessarily cruel to others, its a fine example of how disturbing a film can be without having to resort to gore.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The failure of The Possession of Joel Delaney to add much depth or dimension to its ethnic characters prevents its social-commentary subtext from registering with the same impact as its authentically conveyed race-fear. But the film’s inability to land its target doesn’t stop me from admiring that it took the shot in the first place. 

Where The Possession of Joel Delaney hits the jackpot is in being a totally out-there, risk-takingly offbeat occult thriller, with the soul of a 70s art film.
Flirting with everything from incest to insanity; white guilt to wealth privilege; the socioeconomic roots of violence and the willful impressionability of culture- The Possession of Joel Delaney is worth checking out for anyone interested in seeing what horror with something on its mind looks like.

BONUS MATERIAL
The Possession of Joel Delaney - Complete film - on YouTube

Read a review of The Possession of Joel Delaney DVD on Joe's View


THE AUTOGRAPH FILE
Perry King - 1981
From when I worked at Crown Books on Sunset Blvd
.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

25 comments:

  1. I found a copy of this book earlier this year, but still have not read it yet even though it's staring at me every night on the table right next to my couch. Nor have I ever seen the movie...I think. It's possible I did see it decades ago from a VHS rental. I can't remember it at all even with all the prompting from your excellent and as usual insightful review. Was it ever on TV? Must've been hacked to pieces if it was. Did you re-watch this recently for this review? Or is this all based on memory? If you did re-watch it, how did you manage that? I don't think it's on DVD unless it's a homemade transfer from the old VHS release. Anyway, all my grumbling and questioning aside, it's been one of my "must see someday" wishes for a long time. I've almost given up hope as it seems near impossible to find a copy. And now your review has moved it up to slot number one on that list.

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    1. hi John, Ken has included a link on you tube on which you can see the entire movie. see link at the end of the review.

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    2. Hi John
      I read the book back when I was in high school, but don't recall it being all that great beyond providing a better understanding of Joel and Tonio, who both remain largely undeveloped entities in the film.
      It was released on made-to-order DVD back in 2008, but I'm only getting around to re-seeing it now. I know it was on TV back in the pre-cable days, but I never saw it. I can only image it had a sixty-minute running time for all the cuts they had to do.
      If the genre appeals to you at all, it's really worth checking out.

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    3. Update (8-9-15) Re-read the book after writing this post. It's a good deal better than I remember it, but one of those novels which really illustrates the artistry of adaptation.
      The plot is the same, but the film adds so many more layers onto the Norah/Joel relationship, the whole societal/racial angle, and ratchets up the suspense. Oddly, all of this is achieved by not having Tonio Perez as realized an entity as he is in the book.
      The book's ending is similar, but the film adds a great deal more.
      Glad I read it again,,,it makes me appreciate the film even more.

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  2. Hi Ken,
    Will check this out, I've heard about it, but never see it on TV and assumed it wasn't on Netflix. Where would us film freaks be without YouTube?!

    Initial reactions to your post:
    How strange to see Shirley MacLaine with long hair! Am assuming that under that long thick mane is Mac's usual pixie do!

    I love movies of the late '60s and '70s that show locations as they really were, not all gussied up for audiences. So, I am excited to see this!

    Also, the next year, director Waris Hussein suffered through directing The Burtons breaking up while shooting "Divorce His, Divorce Hers." I wish he'd write a book about it!
    Hussein went on to direct a number of popular television films and mini-series, like "Little Gloria...Happy at Last."
    Cheers!
    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      Yes, YouTube can sometimes be a film "curiosity" enthusiast's best friend.
      And yes, MacLaine without her short hair is another MacLaine indeed. Her long hair sits on her head like a wig, so I'm going to assume it is, but I associate this look exclusively with her Lew Grade years. (although I guess "Woman Times seven" and "What a Way to Go" are major wig festivals, too.
      When researching this, I'd forgotten that Hussein went on to direct that Liz/Dick TV movie. From what little I've read about it, I'd say working with a demon was good preparation for him.
      Thanks for checking in, and hope you like the movie if you ever get around to it!

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  3. Wow Ken, you are on fire with these!

    I’ve only seen this once which was enough. Thinking back on it now I remember the New York feeling of the film and the bygone grim of the city and how that factored into the story. Also the extreme attractiveness of Perry King and what I thought was the silliness of the story which I was okay with until that ending. THAT ENDING!!!! UGH AND YUCK! I realized that the makers were trying for a point although I’m not sure if they fully understood what it was but it was so ugly and distastefully presented it made me hate the entirety of the movie. I’m sure I’ll never watch again but it was nice to discover someone else has seen it, you’re the first I’ve ever run across.

    One humorous tidbit that I noticed looking at the pictures and your mentioning Exorcist and her having to turn it down with Ellen Burstyn stepping in. In this Shirley has that big hair and more or less later adopted Ellen’s Exorcist hairdo for the rest of time whereas Ellen abandoned it shortly after. It’s purely coincidence I’m sure but struck me funny.

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    1. Thanks Joel!
      I obviously think POJD is very strong and i enjoy it a great deal, but I am not fond of the ending (although I understand it and even defend it) but it's too unpleasant for me, too.
      However, the internet is full f people who LOATHE this film precisely because of it. Some feel its a cruel slap in the face that's dramatically unearned.

      And very funny about the whole MacLaine/Burstyn hair thing. The Exorcist was the first time I ever saw the usually long-haired Burstyn with a short haircut, and indeed, MacLaine later in her career pretty much takes on that semi-bubble pixie cut as a mature variation of her youthful one.

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  4. I just watched it (for the first time) because of this very well considered review. Thanks for the heads-up (!) on this!
    I always love reading your thoughts on otherwise neglected films.
    As an indulgent side-note, though...
    Shirley in that long straight hair kept making me flash on Patty Duke as Neely, and Barbara Trentham as Sherry Talbot certainly gave me quite a bit of Sharon Tate/Jennifer North. (the sunglassed guy that Sherry enters the party with was even a bit Polanski-esque). Watch the part where she puts her hands over Joel's eyes (3:50), I could've sworn he said 'Sharon?'.
    Maybe on purpose, maybe I'm just seeing/hearing things...

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    1. Hi
      Always happy if one of my posts inspires someone to explore an otherwise unknown or unconsidered film. Even if you wind up not liking it, it's great to be open to someone else's tastes (I'm practically the opposite...I'm forever skeptical when friends recommend films to me).

      An that's a very amusing and oddly on-point Valley of the Dolls vibe you picked up! I can totally see what you get about Maclaine's O'Hara looks, and Trentham giving off a bit of Jennifer North.
      I had to laugh at your Polanski comment because I have seen many photos of the director during his early days with Tate, and he is ALWAYS decked out in the same Edwardian fop mod look of the character in Joel Delaney.
      And you've got excellent ears! King DOES say Sharon when she covers his eyes
      Although it has been a while, I think in the book the character's name is indeed Sharon and it's related that her friends call her Sherry while the somewhat odd Joel always refers to her as Sharon.
      So no, you're not hearing things!

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    2. oy, thank you...

      No, really, I'm always willing to like what you like.
      As far as I'm concerned, you've got great taste in film, and you can tell people about it without being snooty.
      I think it was your substantial write-up on 'Burnt Offerings' (though I wish it was the review of 'Three Women' from 2009) that brought me here and made me a regular reader in the first place.
      You're awesome!
      So there!

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    3. Such a very nice compliment! All that being said, anyone who writes knows what a gift it is to find someone who hears the "voice" behind the written words. I'm glad you came upon this blog. Thanks!

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  5. Yes! I've only ever seen this once - on TV, way back when I was a teenager. I really need to re-visit it. My memory of it is pretty fuzzy beyond it genuinely being disturbing and packing some real jolts. But most of all, I remember that final devastating close-up of Shirley MacLaine's face. This is probably one of my favourite performances by her, where she ventures of out type-casting. In her youth she tended to play free-spirited kooks. Post-Terms of Endearment, she plays imperious / abrasive battleaxes. MacLaine is capable of much more.

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    1. Excellent point (capped by your and hilariously spot-on description of the two stages of MacLaine's typecasting!) highlighting the change of pace this film provides.
      I so agree with you about her performance here.
      While I like her the most in this film (she is so believable to me, totally grounding the sometimes preposterous goings on) she is also very good in "Desperate Characters." If you haven't seen it, you should check it out. It's practically companion piece to this one, with the added bonus of a nobody-asked-for-that nude scene by kenneth Mars).

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  6. Oh and Possession of Joel Delaney is on Youtube, so will definitely re-watch it for first time in decades soon!

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  7. Thanks for the shout out, Ken!
    This is a woefully underrated movie because it was so hard to access for so many years. I snagged a DVD copy a few years ago and was happy to see how well it held up (indeed, as you point out, it now has a time capsule value it didn't have in 1972).
    I've been a huge fan of Miriam Colon's stage work over the years and really like that scene in Harlem where the maid puts her cards on the table with her ex-boss. It's a shame Colon hasn't had more opportunities in film.
    Other than "Terms of Endearment," I think Shirley MacLaine's work in this film and "Desperate Characters" might be her strongest screen performances. I remember thinking at the time that she was about to go down a Jane Fonda track with gritty dramatic vehicles but she got sidetracked by the McGovern campaign and never returned to this sort of thing.
    It's depressing to read the imdb comments on the movie, with some people raising the specter of kiddie porn over that disturbing scene at the beach house. I doubt that any contemporary film would go as far with an under-age actor.
    The final freeze frame always gets me - such a sick joke on a character who has such contempt for Puerto Ricans earlier in the film. I believe it's a change from the novel's ending (which I read a LONG time ago).



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    1. You're so welcome, Joe! You always find such amazing oddball films and highlight them on your site (I will forever be grateful to you for introducing me to "An American Hippie in Israel").
      I've never seen Miriam Colon onstage, and onscreen only in minor roles, but she has a dignity and strength in her demeanor very necessary to a film like this. She's so good in the scene you note.

      I love what you wrote about thinking that perhaps MacLaine's Lew Grade film projects were heading her down a path of career reinvention, if you will. Very provocative to ponder what a powerful presence she could have been in more roles like this. I totally forgot about her political involvement in the 70s.

      Long ago I made it a point never to read IMDB comments, and your remarks remind me why. I remember reading about the Donald Sutherland film, "Alex in Wonderland" and people on IMDB going off on the kiddie porn tangent in discussing a scene where a father takes a bath with his toddler child. Please! Always makes me wonder where these people's minds are at in the first place.
      Their heads must have exploded over the "Joel Delaney" sequence.

      I should probably read the book again, because now that I think of it, I can't recall at all how the ending differs.
      Thanks a heap for your always welcome and fascinating insightsand commentary!


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  8. Just fixing a typo below! Had to delete, then repost!

    Ken, I wish I liked this film as much as you do...but there are so many things I DON'T like about it..top of the list is Shirley MacLaine's character...I simply can't stand Norah at all, she grates on me! And I am a HUGE MacLaine fan, in films from The Apartment to The Turning Point to Postcards from the Edge...she is one of my favorite stars, but I just can't stomach her in this role. I wonder why this visceral negative reaction...maybe if Carrie Snodgress played THIS role, I would like it a little better? I dunno...

    I loved hearing that Blatty wrote The Exorcist for MacLaine and her daughter Sachi...did you read Sachi's rotten Mommie Dearest tell-all?

    I love your blog and the conversations they engender, even when I don't love the film you're presenting!! I always learn so much, and end up with a long list of movies to see or see again....brilliant!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris!
      It's always interesting when people share such similar tastes as we do in films, what movies constitute the points of dissention. I can thoroughly understand why you don't like MacLaine's character ...and in fact, you comment had me going over in my mind how often I find myself gravitating to movies where certain stars deviate from their "type" and actually play unsympathetic characters.
      For example, I'm no big fan of Henry Fonda, but I love him as the baddie in "Once Upon a Time in the West. Likewise, Jane Fonda's depressive Gloria in "They Shoot Horses" is one of my favorites.
      Hepburn being rather hard and swearing in "Two for the Road", he usually waifish Mia Farrow as the gangster's moll in "Broadway Danny Rose"; maryTyler Moore in "Ordinary People"

      I like movie stars, but sometimes I think I hate the star system. So many good performances are lost because actors are afraid of disappointing fans, or casting people have no imagination.
      Doris Day is such an amazing actress. I always think she would have been a killer Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate."

      If you ever get a chance to see MacLaine in "Desperate Characters" (if you haven't already) I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
      And I have wanted to check out Sachi's book since it came out. Time to check out the local library soon!
      Thanks, Chris. And you're right, it's always entertaining to read ad share opinions on a film even when they aren't all in accordance. No matter what position is take, you and the other commenters here always offer such entertaining food for thought!

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  9. You have the most intelligent and knowledgeable readership of any other classic movie blog...it's a joy!!

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    1. I have to agree with you there! And polite and civil to one another, to boot. A real internet rarity!

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  10. Hi Ken,
    I just saw this film, based on your post, and thank you so much for including the link. I thought your post was terrific (I enjoyed your recollection of the second-run movie theaters and the cheap thrills they used to lure patrons!), and was especially curious to see this film because of your highlighting of its class and race sensibilities.

    I haven't read the novel, so I can't say what comes from the original book and what comes from the screenplay, but seeing the movie I was first amazed at its daring in its depiction of upper-East Side snobbery--the contrast between the swanky party Norah attends at the beginning, with the African masks displayed as exotic 'accessories,' then the later scene in Don Pedro's apartment, in which his displays (the crosses, the candles) have actual meaning to him and his attendees. Plus the whole, grainy grittiness of the film's look and feel, how depressing and unromantic a view of NY. It's interesting to think of this in relation to the discussion of Woody Allen's films (in your post on Everyone Says I Love You), and his presentation of NY as upper-class paradise. I wonder if it's significant that his later films came out of the later gentrification of NY that's now turned it into a city no one can afford (it surprised me in the Delaney film to realize that Joel's grungy digs were in the East Village--yes, the East Village was once like that; only now it's yuppified to where no one from the 60s/70s would recognize it).

    You also made a point in your post that POJD came out a year before The Exorcist--so I'm astonished that POJD is not better known today. The Exorcist now has this reputation as the first of a trend in the horror genre, but Delaney got there before it, and its scene in Don Pedro's apartment is frightening because of the unfamiliarity of its religious rituals. I know orginal viewers were terrified when Linda Blair turns her head 360 degrees, but that's just a shock trick. I found the attempted exorcism in Delaney scary because it's presented so realistically, with the actors showing their characters losing control as they go into trances, and its almost anti-climatic finish when Don Pedro announces he hasn't succeeded. There's no defeat of the devil here. I thought it much more disturbing than projectile vomiting. Just in terms of trends in horror, POJD should be recognized.

    From what I read of the earlier comments here, I gather that audiences were REALLY shocked by the final 15 minutes in POJD (maybe that's one reason why it wasn't a success?). I certainly found it horrible and disturbing, but I also thought it again had a degree of terrifying realism--this is what it's like to deal with a psychopath (and I agree, the scene where the little boy is forced to strip probably wouldn't be allowed today--we seem to have entered another Breen-era-like attitude in regards to what can and cannot be shown onscreen). I was struck by one of your commenter's remarks (and, yes, you do get the MOST intelligent commenters) on the Sherry character resembling Sharon Tate; because one thing I noted in the film was how the photographs of Tonio Perez reminded me of Charles Manson, particularly the ones with the bug-eyed stares. I have a feeling that younger viewers today may not realize what a horrific shock the Manson murders were on the culture, and especially coming right at the end of the 60s; it really felt like societal breakdown. I think the 70s was also the decade when the term 'serial killer' was first coined; and the Perez character in POJD is definitely one (and his class resentment also plays into the final scene). So POJD taps into so much of that era's zeitgeist, and does it without state-of-the-art special effects or a big, glossy budget. I don't think the film is an unacknowledged masterpiece, but I think it's more than a schlock artifact of the 70s.

    As always, thanks for your terrific, insightful reviews!

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    1. Hi GOM
      So loved reading your thoughts on this film! I'm always fascinated to know how an older film holds up to someone seeing it for the first time, and it's enlightening to know that the film's classed-based subtext still has an effective tension after all these years.
      In fact, until you wrote, I had not realized that the grungy section of town where Joel lived had been so transformed! When I looked on a google map to see what the East Village was, I had convinced myself I'd heard it wrong in the film after seeing what a hipster enclave it has become. As you note, unrecognizable!

      Like you, I'm a bit surprised that even books devoted to the horror genre seemed to have overlooked "Joel Delaney," whose tone and approach is rooted in a realism I would have found terrifying had I seen it when it was released.
      Of course, the film's most curious aspect is that audiences today seem more shocked by the films conclusion than 70s audiences, albeit for different reasons. I find the level of sadism of the sequence a little hard to handle, but it clearly is based in realism (as you note, Tonio's desire to humiliate) and therefore very effective.
      But nearly everything I read online expresses outrage at the child nudity, which few seem able to place in context.

      The Manson element is a provocative one for you and the other commenter have taken note of. Indeed, at the time this film came out, the trial and actual truth of the killings was still very much a part of the public's consciousness. So that is indeed a sociological element of perhaps why the film seemed so distasteful to audiences in 1972.
      Certainly the "fantasy" notion of the devil presented in "The Exorcist" would be more entertaining than a film that was essentially about a serial killer contemptuous of the privileged.
      An excellent point I hadn't really thought much about until your post and the fellow who saw the Tate parallels.

      Since writing this post, I re-read the book (given the amount of time elapsed, was really like reading it for the first time) and was surprised to find it included absolutely none of the class/race issues, nor the brother-sister pseudo-incest stuff. Tonio and Joel don't even know one another! Told from the perspective of the MacLaine character (which i wish the film had adhered too more closely), there is a great deal of backstory on Tonio that makes him less a monster figure.
      The film adaptation is more thoughtful and provocative, a good example of how subtextural themes can be used to embellish a genre narrative to create something wholly of a time and place.

      So thrilled that you checked the film out and especially that you came back to share so many of your insights with us. You sum it up perfectly in your last statement in saying that the film is more than just a schlock artifact of the 70s.
      Really a pleasure reading this.Thanks so much!

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  11. Thanks for the excellent review and comments. Regarding the script, in the UK DVD version commentary it is stated that Albert Maltz (a blacklisted screenwriter) worked on it. It could very well be true: if you check The Naked City ( a great movie by the way, written by Maltz) there's a scene where one of the characters is walking through a working class neighbourhood dressed in a expensive suit and feeling kinda anxious, just like Shirley Maclaine in TPOJD. Other movies written by Maltz like The Red House or The Beguiled bear some similarities with TPOJD too.

    This article confirms Maltz's involvement with the script: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/442172/HOLLYWOOD-TRIES-TO-RIGHT-FILM-CREDIT-WRONGS.html?pg=all

    On a lighter note, you are all welcome to my Possession Of Joel Delaney fan page on FB: https://www.facebook.com/ThePossessionOfJoelDelaney/

    Nothing really important, just some bits and pieces of information I have collected though the years. I have taken the liberty of including the Manson Murders similarities spotted by the commenters, hope you don't mind.

    Cheers and keep up the good work!

    Johnny

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    1. Hello Johnny
      Thanks so much for an interesting (make that fascinating) bit of information to add to this intriguing film! In researching this piece (Googling) I’d only come across the name Albert Maltz in having written the 1970 Shirley MacLaine film, "Two Mules for Sister Sara," a movie she made just before entering into her contract with Sir Lew Grade.

      The linked articled and DVD commentary (I wish we had the same here in the US) certainly points to Maltz being an uncredited contributor to the screenplay of “The Possession of Joel Delaney” (which numbers 3 at this point). And from what I glean from your great site, Irene Kamp was in a dispute over alterations to certain script drafts and opted for the Grimes Grice pseudonym? And Joe Raposo /Matthew Robinson “Sesame Street” is hard to dismiss, for another form of Hollywood blacklisting is failing to acknowledge the contributions of African-American writers.
      This is one for the Writers Guild to sort out, but most definitely it appears Albert Maltz was involved with the script. As I look further into it, I hope to revise and update my post.

      Which brings me to your wonderful fan page! Quite an amazing collection of articles, images, and research information on this film. I hope some readers will check out your link. Anyone who’s a fan of this film is sure to enjoy it.
      Thanks very much for visiting my blog and for contributing some valuable information. Glad you enjoyed the post and comments!

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