Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine) is a New York socialite who has recently been divorced from her top surgeon husband, leaving her with a small fortune and two kids (and a dog) to look after in their posh apartment, helped by her Puerto Rican maid Veronica (Miriam Colon). She dotes over her younger brother Joel Delaney (Perry King) who also has a Puerto Rican connection in that he lives in one of their neighbourhoods, wishing to get to know the more impoverished side of life for reasons best known to himself, but he regularly spends time with his sister and plays with her children, all a happy family though Norah is perhaps a little too close to Joel than she would care to admit. But one night, he goes unexpectedly berserk...
The clue to what was happening was all in the title as Joel gets so immersed in Puerto Rican culture that he actually changes race; no, he doesn't put on makeup, though the way this ended could be just as offensive to watch for those unprepared for just how upfront about disturbing the audience the film wished to be, but of course hardly anybody talks about this anymore and that was down to a certain mega-blockbuster showing up a few months later and demolishing every other horror movie in its path. That was The Exorcist, which instead of depicting a slumming rich boy being possessed took the far more emotionally worrying teenage girl getting plunged into the realm of Satan, but Joel Delaney could be just as concerning, if only for the effect the victim had on others.
There was a big difference between what this did to posit the possession problem and what William Friedkin did with his epic chiller, and that was because even at the end we could still believe that any supernatural involvement could be explained by the fact that Joel is suffering from a mental breakdown rather than some outside force causing him to behave so erratically, and finally murderously. Even in that last shot where we were asked to draw our own conclusions could point to a no less tragic but equally explicable by psychology decision from the viewer, and indeed director Waris Hussein (from television usually, and helmed the first ever Doctor Who story) seemed keen to promote debate among the audience about what they had witnessed, from the rational to the irrational.
Another aspect on the movie's mind was the class one, as Norah is a cossetted and wealthy woman about town, not having to worry about where her next meal is coming from, and not worrying about anything very much in the lap of luxury until she is frightened into investigating another world even having a maid from a different culture has not prompted her to take an interest in until it becomes a threat. This gives us one story about what might be afflicting her brother that you can take or leave; she doesn't appear too certain throughout, not that his prevents her taking part in a lengthy "voodoo" ceremony in a dingy flat among people she had previously never given a thought to: Veronica's neighbours. And that story? Joel has been taken over by the spirit of one of the local boys who recently died.
Complicating matters is that the boy had a predilection towards serial killing, and has apparently been decapitating folks just before his demise, which could have traumatised Joel, who knew him, into emulating his behaviour, or maybe the killer has taken over his mind, ironically thanks to the voodoo Norah seeks to cure Joel with. MacLaine was making some exceedingly dark films around this point in her career, and it's debatable whether this was the grimmest, but one look at the last fifteen minutes may well make up the minds of many that the production had gone too far in trying to unnerve the audience and had wound up revolting them instead. No, it doesn't get gory as The Exorcist would, but the sheer psychological torture it puts Norah's family through - those kids were either very accomplished actors or genuinely terrified - is enough to turn plenty off from what had been a deliberately paced but heavy with dread drama. With a chill you can feel in your bones, this was no simple escapism, a chance to enjoy a safe fright, it intended to confront the complacent. Music by Joe Raposo.
No it's not a playful hide-behind-the-cushions kind of horror movie but rather something far more confrontational and socially conscious. I found it a deeply unsettling and powerful work let down only by that hokey ending. Those scenes with Shirley Maclaine at the voodoo or Santeria ceremony have a creepily verite feel about them plus the whole revenge of the underclass theme adds a certain frisson. It's not perfect, a little nasty even misogynistic at times but then a horror movie out to properly unnerve can't always play it safe. On a lighter note, who was the actress that played Joel's unfortunate girlfriend? She was hot.
19 Mar 2015
The actress playing the ill-fated Sherry was the late Barbara Trentham, best known as an ex-wife of John Cleese.
I agree the film sets out to disturb so can hardly be blamed if that's precisely what it does, though most of those who dislike it are turned off for precisely that reason. I suppose the filmmakers couldn't have their cake and eat it too with regards to the effectiveness of the unnerving qualities.