POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY
This screening (part of Dukefest, a small festival curated by the Duke Mitchell Film Club) was busy, though thankfully not so busy that when a person of enormous stature sat in front of me I couldn’t just shift to the seat next to me. What would I have done otherwise? The film itself offered two possibilities: decapitation on the one hand and demonic possession on the other.
Thankfully it didn’t come to that.
I have seen this film before on TV I think. I think I liked it then. I think I liked it now too.
It’s a schlocky premise (wealthy New Yorker Shirley Maclaine’s brother is possessed by a Puerto Rican serial killer) played absolutely straight, and although it flirts with risibility it mostly works.
Author/director Sean Hogan, in the Q&A with Kim Newman afterwards (the film is referenced in Twilight’s Last Screaming, his new book) contrasted director Waris Hussein’s film with the current trend towards ‘socially-conscious’ horror or ‘elevated’ horror, or ‘post-horror’; or what you will.
Clearly this film has aspirations beyond ‘jump scares’. Norah Benson (Maclaine) hardly considers her Puerto Rican maid Veronica (Míriam Colón) as a fellow human being until her brother is possessed; then she is desperate for help from Veronica’s community, and finds herself having to spend a lot of time on the wrong side of town, conspicuous in her fur coat.
Meanwhile, Joel’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as he demonstrates not just a hitherto-unsuspected fluency in Spanish but a penchant for decapitating women, starting with his girlfriend Sherry (Barbara Trenton). This is not a random possession – Joel, who is more of a free spirit than his sister, knew the killer, Tonio Pérez in the years before he died (killed, we learn, by his own father as a service to the community). Now that Pérez is a free spirit himself, the relationship – apparently – continues.
Or maybe not: there remains the possibility that Joel’s possession is a psychological phenomenon – though the film’s take on psychology may best be judged by the fate of Norah’s psychologist friend Erika (Lovelady Powell), whose severed head is left on top of the fridge in Norah’s beach house.
This is where she flees with the kids in order to escape her brother, who by this stage can no longer be considered a reliable babysitter. He turns up, however, and has now gone full gangster – slicked-back hair, leather jacket, switchblade and all. It is a spectacle which might have pushed the proceedings into the arena of high camp (especially when he makes Norah’s daughter eat dog food) but instead is persuasively done (King is excellent).
Another factor is the clear implication of an incestuous bond between brother and sister, meaning that Joel’s attempted sexual assault on his sister at the end might imply that the whole thing has been a charade unconsciously designed to overcome the taboo, by turning him into someone else.
Certainly the assault brings things to a head, with Norah escaping her brother, who is then shot dead by the police. At which point the spirit of Peréz seems to be taking hold of Norah, promising an even wilder sequel (which never happened).
Someone in the Q&A raised the question of why the film had been ‘forgotten’ (which raises another question: just how many people have to remember a film before it is no longer ‘forgotten’? Presumably more than the occupants of the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles. The downstairs screen is bigger).
Tom Milne’s review of this film in my old Time Out Film Guide (most of the review is reproduced in my Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia) might suggest one reason for its falling out of favour (if it has): it claims that despite its ‘slick racial moralizing’ the film inadvertently becomes a cautionary tale with ‘an alarmist message saying: Keep New York White’.
You can see the argument. After all, the usual method of promoting a message of racial tolerance and equality is to suggest that everybody is the same deep down – rather than to make the main representative of the disadvantaged minority a disembodied serial killer who invades the world of white privilege and terrorizes their kids.
In a sense the film literally demonizes Puerto Ricans, and/or equates liberal intentions with mental illness.
But look closer at the words Milne uses – ‘alarmist message’ for example. A horror film doesn’t generally have a staightforward ‘message’ but it can hardly be criticised for being ‘alarmist’, alarm being horror’s stock in trade.
I was further struck by Milne’s description of the scene where Norah attends a vividly-realised ritual, intended to dispossess Joel – which, however, fails to do the job, possibly because Norah’s heart isn’t in it (she is exhorted by the man leading the ritual to ‘believe’, but is unable to make that commitment).
Neither is Milne, who writes about ‘shrieking Puerto Ricans’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’. But it takes a leap of faith to bridge a gap between different cultures and economic classes – you just might have to give up some of your treasured beliefs and surrender to the ‘mumbo jumbo’.
In Gothicizing this gulf between worlds the film is actually doing justice to the difficulty of achieving ‘equality’, which, after all, continues to elude us in spite of all our good intentions. This is not exactly ‘slick moralizing’.
Yes, you can argue that the film is conservative – the final collision between two worlds is, on the face of it, not something to be desired (the ritual was an attempt to prevent it): wouldn’t it be better for everyone to stay in their place?
But this is to ignore the transgressive thrill implicit in that collision, inseparable from the horror. Kim Newman said something about this film being about ‘making white people suffer’ (not necessarily a bad thing, of course) and perhaps Waris Hussein felt that way.
At any rate, there is no fundamental position here, only endless instability. Horror is about unreliable identities: the mad pretending to be sane, the dead to be alive. It might be that the very need to create definitions like ‘post-horror’ or ‘elevated horror’ is a reflection of this, as though horror itself is an unreliable identity that needs to be safely contained, if it appears to be escaping the confines of the genre, within another genre.
Keith Thomas’ The Vigil, seen on Film4 recently, is another example of a horror film that isn’t afraid to tackle some weighty subjects – antisemitism and the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust – but it bites off more than it can chew. You can say the same of Possession Of Joel Delaney but that is at least vigorous in its chewing, while The Vigil politely nibbles.
Yakov (Dave Davis) is an Orthodox Jew trying to escape the community, not an easy task we discover, requiring as it does the assistance of a self-help group.
Short of funds, Yakov is tempted briefly back into the fold by an offer of paid work as a ‘shomer’, watching over a corpse to guard it against demons. In this case the body is that of Holocaust survivor Mr. Litvak, whose life was poisoned by his experiences.
He was also, as he informs Yakov on a video Litvak’s widow shows him, tormented by a demon called the massik, which preys on people’s feelings of guilt and has its head on backwards to symbolize an excessive involvement with the past. As it turns out Yakov has his own trauma and his own feelings of guilt, having failed to protect his young brother from an antisemitic assault that resulted in his (accidental) death.
The massik, then, would seem to have another ideal victim to focus on, and Yakov is duly beset by various phenomena until Litvak’s widow shows him the proper ritual way to dispel the demon – which wears Yakov’s own face during the encounter– and it burns (though the last scene suggests that it may still be on his trail).
The exorcism seems to serve as a catharsis, freeing Yakov of his guilt and strengthening his resolve to move away from the Orthodox Jewish community. At the same time, a flashback indicates that Livak’s guilt over shooting a woman during the war (because forced to by a Nazi) has now been dealt with.
It’s all a little bit too neat. The piling on of emotional trauma onto supernatural menace ought to maximize the material’s impact, but here the two aspects seem to cancel each other out.
As, logically, they should. Exorcizing emotional ‘demons’ and exorcizing real ones are not the same thing. The first undermines the whole structure of the ‘demon’, so that, explained away, it melts into thin air – the other merely gets rid of one demon, which continues to exist, along with, we must presume, a lot of other demons. Not to mention angels. Not to mention God.
It makes perfect emotional sense that Yakov, after ‘exorcizing his demons’, is free to walk away from the Orthodox Jewish community; it makes no sense that he can be freed in this way by exorcizing a real demon. On the contrary, that should draw him further into the community, since his experience has essentially proved the Orthodox Jews right.
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in The Exorcist doesn’t suddenly cut all ties with the Catholic Church after her daughter Regan is ‘cured’ – her daughter’s ordeal makes her a believer.
The suggestion at the end that Yakov hasn’t quite got away with it is the film’s way of acknowledging this contradiction, I suppose – but it is rather mild. Demons are metaphors to begin with, and The Vigil has perhaps been too anxious to make its demon into a very specific one, a process which can, like exorcism, drain the menace away.
Perhaps the best thing is simply to ignore any distinction between the metaphorical and the ‘real’, if you can get away with it.
Finnish horror film Hatching (Picturehouse Central) does, which might have something to do with the skilful way director and co-writer (with Ilja Rautsi) Hanna Bergholm sets up its situation in an early scene. The film presents a household dominated by a mother (Sophia Heikkilä), who is also a social media lifestyle guru, working hard to present her family life as perfect. When a bird invades her living room, creating havoc, she is hysterical, until daughter Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) catches it and hands it to her, at which point she calmly breaks its neck.
She then tells Tinja to put the dead bird in the bin – ‘organic waste’, she specifies. She might as well be delivering a damning verdict on nature itself: her world is a place where anything untamed must be excluded, and this includes aspects of her daughter, whose training in gymnastics she is obsessively monitoring (and recording).
Having set up a scenario from which the messier aspects of reality are excluded, the film prepares the ground for a sort of fairy tale. Which is not to say that those messy elements won’t turn up, just that they will appear in a shadowy, distorted form.
Tinja finds an egg, possibly dropped by the bird from earlier, and determines to hatch it. As it grows over days to a monstrous, impossible size, she continues to hide it in her bedroom, a situation which adheres perfectly to the emotional logic of the adolescent’s secret shame, the unshared worry that grows more and more oppressive and exaggerated the longer it is brooded over.
At the same time it’s also a perfectly logical outcome of Mother’s regime, in which anything that doesn’t conform to her idea of a presentable lifestyle is exiled from perceived reality, and therefore freed to take on strange new shapes.
What hatches from the egg is a grotesquely large baby bird with teeth, which it soon uses to kill nextdoor’s dog, which has previously bitten Tinja; later it turns into her ‘evil twin’, enacting Tinja’s suppressed aggressive impulses – or her mother’s, we can’t necessarily distinguish between the two. Thus Tinja’s friend, her rival in the gymnastic arena, is attacked and a baby – the child of Mother’s lover – is threatened.
There are moments in the film where we are moved to consider the way Tinja’s double relates to ‘objective reality’, and Tinja’s method of feeding her with her own vomit, in the manner of a bird – intersects with familiar adolescent ‘issues’ around body dysmorphia. But here there is no need to do more than check in to ‘reality’ every now and again: a world has been created from Mother’s conscious interventions and Tinja’s unconscious ones, and it is sufficient unto itself.
In the end Mother and Tinja join forces to ‘get rid’ of the intruder, but when Mother stabs Tinja’s double, she kills Tinja instead – the double, nourished by Tinja’s lifeblood, rises up to confront her. At which point we understand that after all there has only ever been one Tinja, and that what we are witnessing is the familiar scene of the parent faced with the spectre of their child as a person in their own right.
From this point on, the film could play out realistically; instead, it ends.
A similar parent-child dynamic animates The Exorcist. In Hatching, however, the ‘demon’ can’t simply be cast out, and there is no traditional structure like the Catholic Church to fall back on.
Which might suggest that Hatching is the less conservative film, though this isn’t necessarily the case.
The film’s portrayal of an ’empowered’ female as thoroughly toxic and controlling and her husband (Jani Volanen) – who placidly accepts his wife’s infidelity – as comically pathetic, suggests a hankering for a more traditional family unit and an implication that the current state of affairs is ‘unnatural’. This is not exactly in tune with progressive feminist thought, even if the film’s focus on Tinja’s experience may be.
But what the conservative and progressive positions share is precisely that fantasy which concerns Hatching, and to a great extent horror itself: that of ‘getting rid’ of those disagreeable aspects of life that don’t fit in with their theories, or our hopes. Horror translates them into monsters, which can then be dispatched by a silver bullet or stake through the heart; the politically-motivated resort to scapegoating, or censorship.
As Hatching demonstrates, however, this is only fantasy – the ‘bad thing’ cannot be so easily displaced. Even The Exorcist had sequels.