In the late 1980s, there was a spate of horror flicks with Voodoo plots. They were The Serpent and the Rainbow, Angel Heart and The Believers. The results were mixed.
The filmmakers should have learned something from The Possession of Joel Delaney, a true gem directed by Waris Hussein and starring Shirley MacLaine and Perry King.
Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy Manhattanite, and her younger brother Joel Delaney (Perry King) are headed to an upscale party being given by Norah's friend Dr. Erika Lorenz (Lovelady Powell).
The apartment is filled with expensive art and it's the kind of highbrow event where you'd overhear someone say, "When I told my butler that I took a bus, he was simply appalled!"
Joel is surprised when his girlfriend Sherry (Barbara Trentham) shows up. Norah is extremely protective of her brother and watches in the distance as they talk.
The next morning, Norah's maid Veronica (Miriam Colon) arrives at Norah's townhouse for work. She's late because she too was at a party the night before.
Norah is unsympathetic and instructs the maid to get her two children Carrie (Lisa Kohane) and Peter (David Elliott) ready for school. She also says she wants a fine dinner that night because she hopes to have Joel join them.
Later, Norah stops by the ice skating rink in Central Park, where her brother has taken her kids after school. She's unnerved when she catches Joel playing unusually rough with Carrie on the ice and yells at him to be careful.
Joel tells Norah he cannot come over for dinner because he has some kind of meeting to attend. She's disappointed and agrees to his request that they do it the following evening.
When Joel doesn't arrive on time the next day, Norah gives him a ring to see what's delaying him. She doesn't hear anyone at the other end - but there's some kind of exotic music playing in the background.
Thinking she has the wrong number, Norah dials once more. Again, she hears the music...but this time she can hear somebody making odd sounds into the phone. She tells the kids to go ahead and eat - and heads over to her brother's apartment to see what is going on.
Joel lives in a seedy Hispanic section of the East Village, a different world from the one Norah inhabits. When she steps out of the cab, Norah sees a large group of people surrounding his building.
To her surprise...she sees her brother being dragged out in handcuffs by the police, screaming at the top of his lungs. When she demands to know where they're taking him, an officer tells her Bellevue Hospital. Apparently, Joel attacked the superintendent.
Norah goes to the hospital herself and tries to find out information about Joel by throwing her weight around. The fact that her ex-husband Ted is a surgeon there is of no help. From a pay phone, she calls Ted (Robert Burr) to try and get his assistance.
His current wife Marta (Marita Lindholm) answers - and although annoyed by this latest drama in Norah's life, Ted and Marta go to Bellevue to see what they can do. Ted finds out that Joel has been taken to the psychiatric ward for tests. He tells Norah he has no idea what could be wrong with him and wonders if it could be drugs - a suggestion Norah scoffs at.
The next day, Norah goes to Joel's building to try and get into his apartment and bring a stray cat back to her home that Joel has taken in. She gets the key from the super (Aukie Herger) and while his door is open, she notices his apartment is filled with religious accoutrements.
Her brother's place is a mess and Norah has a hard time believing he can live under these circumstances. On the floor, she finds a large switchblade knife.
Joel's girlfriend Sherry enters the apartment and Norah explains what happened the night before. Sherry finds it hard to believe that he would try and hurt someone, telling Norah he was more likely to harm himself.
She offers Norah a ride back home and on the way out, Norah notices a painting on the wall of a hand with stigmata. Sherry says it was drawn by a Puerto Rican guy that Joel used to hang around with.
At the hospital, Joel has no recollectino of the circumstances that brought him there. Norah tells him that he attacked the super, a charge that Joel denies. She says the doctors think he may have taken LSD and that if he admits it, he can be released under the care of a doctor...perhaps their friend Erika. She also wants her brother to stay with her. Joel grudgingly goes along with this.
Joel arrives at Erika's spacious apartment - with its spectacular view of Central Park. During their first session together, he obviously doesn't want to divulge much.
The doctor asks about his recent trip to Tangiers and wonders why this man from such an affluent background would want to live in the East Village. Joel tells her he formed a strong bond with the son of the super, a young guy named Tonio Perez. He says his friend stands for everything Norah hates.
At Norah's, Joel begins behaving oddly. He asks his sister inappropriate questions about her sex life. When Norah hears music coming from his bedroom, she enters but Joel is nowhere to be found. It's obvious from the open window that he sneaked out of the townhouse sometime earlier.
Her brother shows up at a nearby nightclub where he finds Sherry with a group of guys, high out of her mind. They go back to her pad, where Joel proceeds to get rough during their lovemaking. The next day is his birthday and he invites Sherry to Norah's place for a small party.
The "party" is small indeed, attended by Norah's kids and Sherry and Veronica. When Sherry realizes she's lost one of her earrings, Joel takes her and the kids into the street to look for it. They find it in the car but Joel is acting very childish. He attaches the earring to a balloon and sends it up into the sky.
During his happy birthday sing-a-long, Joel nearly burns Sherry's hair in the candles on the cake. Demanding more to drink, he suddenly starts speaking in Spanish and insults everyone around him. Sherry has had enough and leaves. Veronica is also upset and heads home as well.
The following day, Norah sees the kids off to school and goes to Sherry's apartment to return her other earring that she dropped. She finds the door unlocked and enters it. She can hardly believe what she sees: the girl's decapitated body on the bed and her head hanging from a huge plant. Norah is so dizzy, she nearly faints.
Detective Brady (Peter Turgeon) arrives at Norah's townhouse to question her. He asks about Sherry's attendance at the birthday party - and also about Joel's whereabouts. He wants to know if Joel has any Puerto Rican friends.
The murder is similar to three others that occured the summer before...in which the victims were found decapitated with their heads tied to something. The stories didn't get much attention because the girls were Hispanic.
The belief is that Tonio Perez committed the crimes...he's been missing ever since. The investigation stalled when Tonio's friends and neighbors in Spanish Harlem wouldn't cooperate.
The detective insists on seeing Joel and taking him down to the station house. Norah is reluctant at first but Joel comes out of his room and is taken away by the officer.
Norah goes to the New York Public Library to look at the articles about the Perez murders. She then calls home to speak to Veronica...but finds out from the kids that the maid quit and isn't coming back. Norah is determined to find out why and takes a taxi up to Spanish Harlem to see the woman.
She implores Veronica to help her uncover exactly what's going on with her brother. The former employee gives Norah the name and address of Don Pedro, owner of a store that sells paraphernalia for Santeria rituals. (Santeria is a combination of Catholicism and Haitian Voodoo.)
Don Pedro (Edmundo Rivera Alvarez) is wary of the white woman who is asking for assistance. When Norah offers him money, he tells her, "People like yourself...you try to buy God and your mind is closed." Despite this, he asks if she can bring her brother to him.
When she says no, he tells her to come to his home the next day and gives her his address. She is to bring one of Joel's belongings. "Mrs. Benson, we know all about Joel Delaney and Tonio Perez. We will help," he says. While trying to find a cab to go home, Norah feels threatened by the hostility in the neighborhood.
Safely back at her Park Avenue flat, Norah knocks on Joel's bedroom door when she hears him speaking to someone. Amazingly, Joel is alone. He refuses to answer his sister's questions about the Perez boy.
Norah meets with Erika at a restaurant. The doctors tells her that Joel does indeed talk about Tonio and that the two men actually have a lot in common despite their different backgrounds. She also says that Norah shouldn't do anything rash.
Ignoring this, Norah arrives at Don Pedro's apartment and finds the mother of Tonio Perez (played by Teodorino Bello).
As she's telling them both that she doesn't want her brother hanging around Mrs. Perez's son, she finds out some shocking news: Tonio is dead and the two believe that his spirit has entered Joel's body. Mrs. Perez admits that her son killed the other three girls - and tells Norah that Tonio's father killed him when he found out.
Others arrive for the ceremony. Norah gives Don Pedro Joel's scarf as music is played and candles are lit. All the participants seem possessed by the spirit they're trying to channel. Norah is overcome and almost passes out. According to Don Pedro, Tonio Perez's spirit doesn't want to come out because Norah isn't a believer. He tells her to come back with Joel.
When Norah gets home, she finds Joel screaming and barricaded inside. Frantic, she takes Peter and Carrie to Erika's apartment and catches her just as she's preparing her husband Justin (Michael Hordern) for a business trip.
Erika doesn't believe the story about the possession and tells Norah that the most important thing right now is the safety of her and her children. She tells Norah to go to her house in the Hamptons for now and that she will deal with Joel.
Norah rents a car and is off to the beachhouse. Erika's husband leaves for the trip, unaware that Joel is standing outside of his and Erika's apartment building.
The home on the beach is quiet and isolated. Norah is relaxed enough to go to bed and get a good night's rest. The next morning, she's awakened by a strange noise. Peter and Carrie are playing by the water and everything seems fine.
However, Norah goes to get something out of the refrigerator and finds something on a cabinet above it: Erika's decapitated head. Joel is standing nearby with a knife.
He holds his sister and her kids captive, breaking out in Spanish sporadically. He also taunts them by graphically cutting open a fish the kids caught shortly before.
After holding a knife up to Carrie's neck and making fun of Norah's wealth, Joel makes them dance for their lives. He also forces Peter to take off all his clothing, humiliating the young boy. The police arrive and Norah yells at them not to shoot. They can only watch what's happening through the huge glass sliding doors.
Joel's reign of terror isn't over. In the kitchen, he tries to force Carrie to eat dog food before slashing her neck slightly.
Finally, Norah jumps on Joel to stop him. They struggle and Joel gives his sister a passionate kiss (capping off the film's rather incestuous subtext). Norah tells the kids to run out of the house. Joel goes after them and is shot by the officers.
His sister rushes to his side but it is too late to save him. As she cradles him in her arms, something seems to overcome her. Norah picks up the knife and holds it up towards the cops...
As in Rosemary's Baby, the New York City setting in The Possession of Joel Delaney is appropriately menacing.
We are asked to identify with the cold and aloof Norah as she goes from her comfortable surroundings to the streets of Spanish Harlem. Gripping all the way, with some extremely eerie moments throughout.
Joel Delaney is a creepy story...and also a VERY claustrophobic movie. The grimy, confusing landscape of Manhattan provides the perfect, festering environment for the weirdo black magic that beats Shirley MacLaine's character down...and out of the city to the disturbing and powerful climax.
A lot of the credit should go to MacLaine. Classically intense, she almost never makes a false move as an actress and leads an exceptional cast.
A seventies exercise in good acting, suspense and all-out horror.