I’d stop reviewing possession flicks if they had ever stopped making them; well, I’m sure I’ll run out of good ones eventually, but today is not that day. The Possessed (1977) hit the small screen in the wake of demonic giants as a pilot for a series that never took off. What a shame - imagine if we had a Devil of the Week show terrorizing the youth of North America? But TV is littered with the also-rans, and this one is top notch hellfire.
Originally broadcast Sunday, May 1st as a segment of NBC’s The Big Event, The Possessed was up against ABC’s Sunday Night Movie and CBS’ Switch/Delvecchio. Obviously it didn’t generate enough interest to go to series, which is a damn shame because it’s teed up in very intriguing ways.
Let’s open up our faux TV GUIDE for some spiritual help:
THE POSSESSED (Sunday, 9:30pm, NBC)
A defrocked priest arrives at an all girls school to confront a demonic entity. James Farentino, Joan Hackett star.
Our telefilm opens with said priest, Father Leahy (Farentino – Dead & Buried) hitting the sacramental wine pretty hard during and after a service, and subsequently crashing his car into a light pole. This sends him into purgatory, where he’s told he’s fallen from God’s good books and the only way to get into heaven is to head back to earth and help rid the world of evil. One good defibrillator zap later and Leahy is back in business.
We turn away from him for the time being and head over to the Helen Page School in Salem, Massachusetts, where the young ladies are getting ready for graduation. The only issue is that a lot of fires are breaking out – first, the typewriter paper of teacher Ellen Sumner (Claudette Nevins – Tuff Turf), then days later in the dorm room of her daughter Weezie (Ann Dusenberry – Jaws 2), followed by a flame-attracted grad gown worn by Weezie’s roommate Lane (Diana Scarwid – Psycho III).
A detective shows up and sniffs around (Eugene Roche – The Last Halloween) to little avail; when Ellen asks a professor if she knows anyone who can help, he says he’s heard of an ex-priest named Leahy that specializes in these kinds of cases – and lo and behold, he arrives to help. Unsure of what or who he’s dealing with, Leahy races against time before anyone else is killed and the school is destroyed. But does he have the moxie to best the demon?
Well, The Possessed certainly didn’t have the moxie to make it to series; which is too bad because it sets it up in a very efficient way: within the first five minutes we know who our protagonist is and what his mission entails, but we’re given little backstory, making him a very intriguing character. Leahy says he left the priesthood for alcoholism, adultery, and other things that are never mentioned. He also has a habit of appearing when needed, and vanishing when he’s done.
So who exactly is Leahy? Is he a ghost? An angel? A humbled man with an assist from someone upstairs? I have a feeling that these questions were mapped out, ready to be answered if a series were to materialize; a mythology that could have possibly explored belief, the afterlife, the netherworld – who knows?
Not that The Possessed doesn’t play well as a standalone; thanks to a very capable cast and taut direction from TV vet Jerry Thorpe (Kung Fu), it is light on thrills but offers a boffo makeup effects finish and a few creepy moments to get you there. Writer John Sacret Young (Testament) offers no easy solution as to the what, but rather draws out the mystery of the who it’s happening to; it would seem the makers are more interested in Leahy and his journey than a deep look at possession.
And why should it? With Farentino in the lead, the film has a stoic and introverted man at war with himself; he’s easily the most interesting character in the film, which isn’t to discount the cast at all – Hackett as the troubled headmistress and a (just) pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford have a lot of fun with their meatier roles – but clearly it’s meant as a showcase for Farentino and his Leahy.
For those in the mood for some solemn yet strangely fun TV horror, The Possessed will take care of all your short term spiritual needs – anything beyond that, contact the church. Or if you’ve been real bad, hit up Leahy. He’s just a prayer away.Next: It Came From The Tube: KILLDOZER (1974)