CONTAINS SPOILERS AND WHUUU????!?!??!
There are several things to like about this film. It's got an interesting subtext about the widely differing lifestyles between rich and poor in the same city, it's a horror movie about possession, it's got severed heads, dismembered corpses, Michael Hordern as a therapist, the restless ghost of a serial killer, Puerto Rican exorcism rituals (the religion is apparently Santaria) and suggestions of incest; it stars Shirley MacLaine, incredibly, and it climaxes with a genuinely disturbing and distressing sequence of grotesque humiliations including and involving children, to such unsettling extent that you wonder how the hell the BBFC passed it - and at a lower rating than before! What was given a fat red X in 1971 (and the DVD nostalgically includes the BBFC's X card at the start) has now been downgraded to a mere 15 with "previous film cuts waived", yet I was honestly left wondering whether it should have been passed at all....
The Possession Of Joel Delaney has Perry King as Joel, a "freelance writer" who has chosen to live in poverty in a squalid little apartment in the Puerto Rican neighbourhood of New York. Yet his divorcee sister Norah (Shirley MacLaine) and her two young kids live in a swish and well-appointed house in the best area of the city. But Joel goes unaccountably mad and attacks his landlord one night - why? As Norah looks into it, she finds a connection between Joel and Tonio Perez, wanted by the police for three grisly ritual decapitations. Who can help her sort out Joel's mood swings and his increasingly erratic and upsetting behaviour?
There's certainly an enjoyably odd juxtaposition with the rich and fur-coated MacLaine stumbling around the poorest ghettos of the city: a world away yet just a taxi ride away. Hers is a well-heeled world: her friends are surgeons and therapists who go to the opera and throw elegant parties, while her own brother has elected to live in a tiny, cramped apartment because he finds the people fascinating. To her, the cultures and practices are entirely alien; when she attends an exorcism ritual we don't understand exactly what's going on any more than she does.
There are definite hints at some kind of creepy brother-sister attraction between Joel and Norah throughout. But the film is at its most problematic in the final reels, where Norah and the children have escaped the increasingly unhinged Joel to a beach house, but Joel has followed and terrorises all three of them with a switchblade. It's a genuinely distressing sequence in which Joel is no longer Joel, but the maniacal Tonio, and he is as loathsome and despicable as any of the home invasion scum of the Last House On The Left / Death Weekend genre, not just for his new-found (and debatably still incestuous) attitude to Norah as his savagery towards the children. It's a sequence that you just couldn't get away with today, no matter how artfully staged and edited.
Because the strongest and most upsetting moment here isn't when he forces Norah's daughter to eat dog food out of the bowl on the floor, nor even when her throat is very slightly cut with the knife - it comes when Joel forces Norah's young son - aged around ten - to strip naked and dance on a table; a sequence which includes frontal child nudity. How does this sequence not constitute "indecent images of a child"? That it's fleeting, and in a non-sexual context, or that it would have been difficult to edit around, shouldn't matter. It's easily the sourest note in the film, which is otherwise a pretty enjoyable and intriguing, if unsettling, curiosity with a nice ambiguity in the ending. A very cautious recommendation.