Nov 21, 2012

The Possession of Joel Delaney


Often horror movies frame and exorcise the most macabre of all monsters, the "homosexual," but sometimes it reveals the contrived, the oppressive, and the monstrous hidden within the myth of heteronormativity.


In The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), Joel (23-year old Perry King) has thick wavy hair the color of cinnamon, somewhat feminine pink lips, and dark eyes that are somewhat unfocused.  He is an effervescent hippie who scrawls “Power to the People” on his apartment wall, a spontaneous man-child who sends a magic earring via balloon to the moon; yet he as smooth and milk-pale, his muscles hard and chiseled as marble.  And he is quite obviously gay.

The original novel by Ramona Stewart says only that one of Joel’s friends is a disturbingly feminine hippie, but the movie gives us many more clues.   Joel has just returned from gay mecca Tangiers; he lives in a gay mecca, the East Village.  His overbearing socialite sister Norah (Shirley Maclaine) describes her male lovers and then asks if he is seeing. . .um. . . anyone?

He is: Tonio, a young Puerto Rican man, the son of his landlord They have a remarkable intimacy; sometimes they sit up all night, “listening to music and talking.”

Norah is not happy, perhaps because she would prefer to see him with a woman, or perhaps because Tonio is not “their sort,” but nevertheless she is shocked when she spies Joel talking to a girl, Sherry (Barbara Trentham), at a party.

Some days later, Joel goes to a gay bar, evidently his usual hangout, since he sits quite at home among the interracial same-sex couples dancing to slow jazz or discussing intimacies over drinks; but inexplicably he ends taking Sherry home for a sexual encounter.  She becomes his “girlfriend.”

After this surrender to the constraints of heteronormativity, Joel’s life begins its descent, and there is more odd, out of character behavior.  He talks to someone when there’s no one around, and curses at the maid in fluent Spanish though he’s never studied the language.  He asks Norah inappropriate questions about her sex life and plays too rough with his little niece and nephew (Lisa Kohane, David Elliott).  One night he attacks his landlord.  Then his gal pal Sherry is decapitated.

The police suspect Joel’s “friend” Tonio.  Norah believes that Joel is hiding him.  She begs him to turn Tonio in, or at least end the relationship, but Joel refuses.  Only when it is too late does she realize that Tonio is dead!  He died six months ago, and as a “restless spirit” is taking possession of his lover's body.  But Tonio liked women, too; the possessed Joel grabs every woman in sight, even Norah.  

Many cultural texts insist that gay men spend their lives sewing dresses of human skin (as in The Silence of the Lambs) or arguing with their mummified mothers (as in Psycho), but even their more ordinary sexual practices are supposed to elicit disgust in "us," the human beings. But here the gay Joel is innocent and the heterosexual (or mostly-heterosexual) Tonio is evil.

When Norah finally understands the evil that has irrupted from the East Village, it is too late: Joel has become completely possessed and barricaded himself in the apartment.  Norah flees with her children to their beach house on Fire Island (another gay mecca),  but Joel-Tonio follows and terrorizes them.  He merely intimidates the girl by forcing her to eat dogfood; he forces the boy to dance naked on the coffee table (a scene so shocking that it cannot be viewed today, and has been excised from the DVD version). The police see what’s happening and shoot Joel, releasing him from his possession, but in the final-scene zinger, Tonio finds a new host body in Norah.


The Possession of Joel Delaney is about fear of the Other, the nonwhite, nonheterosexual persons who populate the edges of Norah’s consciousness.  But Joel is so overtly gay that only the refusal to use the word itself keeps him from being open; and for once the gay guy is a favorite uncle, a doting brother, perverted by a weird outside force rather than working himself to pervert others.

Perry King would go on to be featured in After Dark, the gay-vague entertainment magazine, and to play several gay characters, such as a hired killer in Andy Warhol’s Bad (1971) and a fashion designer “cured” by sex with a lesbian in A Different Story (1978).   Later he buddy-bonded with Don Stroud in Search and Destroy (1979) and shared an intimate Starsky and Hutch-type love affair with Joe Penny in the detective series Riptide (1984-86), and in 2000 he guest starred on Will and Grace as an older man who dates Jack.