Shirley MacLaine has always made fun of the B-level British producer Lew Grade, who convinced the actress to do a disastrous, short-lived TV series in the late 1960s (“there’s high grade and Lew Grade,” she wrote in one of her memoirs).
But, thanks to her TV deal with Grade, MacLaine was able to get a greenlight for a pair of theatrical movies of her choice in 1970; the result was two of MacLaine’s best dramatic performances before “Terms of Endearment” nabbed her an Oscar in 1983.
The first picture, “Desperate Characters” (1971), was a faithful adaptation of the acclaimed Paula Fox novel about a couple whose marriage buckles after they decide to become early gentrifiers in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn.
“Desperate Characters” has been available on video for several years, but the second film in MacLaine’s deal with Lew Grade, “The Possession of Joel Delaney” (1972), didn’t appear on DVD until more recently.
Based on a novel by Ramona Stewart, and directed by Waris Hussein, the film is one of the best of the many urban supernatural stories that followed in the wake of “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968.
“Possession” is about a wealthy divorced Manhattanite Norah Benson (MacLaine) who slowly comes to the realization that her younger brother Joel (Perry King) might be possessed by the spirit of a psychotic Puerto Rican he befriended while living in a hovel in the East Village.
The woman finds out that the Puerto Rican was suspected of several unsolved murders in the city and begins to fear her brother is picking up where the dead man left off.
The movie adds a suggestion of incest to the brother-sister relationship that isn’t in the novel, but this is a minor weakness in an otherwise creepy and well-acted tale of the supernatural.
What adds to the film’s entertainment value now is the portrait of New York City teetering on the brink of chaos as crime and poverty spiked at the start of the 1970s.
Norah is comfortably ensconced in her East Side townhouse when the film begins, but as she tries to figure out what is wrong with her brother she has to venture into collapsing parts of the city she has never seen before. “The Possession of Joel Delaney” becomes a horror movie about class differences in New York City.
MacLaine is daringly unsympathetic through much of the film, playing a woman who doesn’t hide her disdain for those who don’t have money or social clout. The tone Norah takes toward her Puerto Rican maid Veronica (played by the terrific New York stage actress Miriam Colon), and her other social inferiors, gets a big payoff at the end with a sick joke freeze-frame worthy of Brian DePalma.