by Dean Brandum
It would have been at least 25 years ago that I became aware of Abby. I purchased a set of lobby cards for the film (for $4, if memory serves me correctly). In garish green monotone, the ghoulish font and lurid images promised a low-budget exploitation extravaganza, a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist just as willing to trade on exploitable elements but without the Blatty-Friedkin veneer of respectable seriousness. At the time my only recourse for actually seeing the film was the hope that it turned up on late night television or found a repertory cinema slot. Neither eventuated and nor did it appear on the shelves of the newly-emerging video stores that were springing up across town like mushrooms after a spring rain.
Times changed and so did I. My movie tastes moved elsewhere and mostly away from the horror and trash obsessions of my youth. However I did keep abreast of those genres and fixations of yore through various magazines and the occasional bootleg purchase and when I finally connected to the internet I would pass an odd glance at websites devoted to such matters with the enthusiasm that I would once muster for a combination of monsters and afros.
It was only when I was making some completely unrelated purchases recently that I stumbled across Abby in the bootlegger’s listings and so, with a nostalgic chuckle, I added it to the order. What I once considered a holy grail was now relegated to making up the numbers, a scruffy deviant inexplicably sharing company with a proud range of noted cinema classics.
When I finally got around to watching Abby recently, it was not the experience I had long expected and, I’m pleased to say, that was a good thing.
Released by AIP, Abby’s narrative happily works the side of its distributor’s street. A youthful community is thrown into turmoil when a mythical evil is unleashed. A particular innocent young thing is targeted and must be saved from corruption. After conventional methods prove fruitless, it is the obscure and ancient tracts that are applied and in a violent finale, the evil is vanquished and the soul saved. From various Blaculas, Yorgas, Deathmasters and so forth, it was a popular company model at the time.
In this case the evil is none other than Eshu, African deity of sexuality, unleashed when the multi-talented bishop-archaeologist-lecturer Garnet Williams (William Marshall), excavates its resting place when on a digging expedition in Nigeria. Somehow it travels back to the bishop’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky and takes residence in his daughter-in-law Abby (Carol Speed), a marriage counsellor and devoted member (and gospel leader) of her local church, one presided over by her husband Emmett (Terry Williams), the bishop’s son. Before long, she begins acting oddly, engaging in self-mutilation, verbal and physical abuse of her husband, mocking the church and finally slutting herself over town. With Emmett at his wit’s end he calls dad in Africa who returns home and begins a process of expelling the demon from her body.
With such material at hand one would imagine a bevy of boobs, afros ahoy and fashions furiously vivid, all set to a pulsating funk soundtrack. However these genre touchstones are mostly ignored in favour of a reasonably sincere indictment of the patriarchal notion of the church. Such a theme may only be appreciated if the viewer is attentive enough to overlook many of the cruder aspects of Abby’s production values, including some cheesy effects work and often risible dialogue.
“There aint no sin in being proud of doin’ a good job, living a good life and lovin’ a good man” – Abby’s mother (Juanita Moore) to Abby.
When we first meet Abby she is a demure young woman, an over-achiever in community and church spirit. She genuinely loves her husband and praises his love-making skills, the sort of compliment he needs as it is apparent that he harbours resentment at living in his famous father’s shadow. Emmett, it would seem, suffers the impotence of asserting his own personality within his church and neighbourhood, all the while he shares that common surname.
After Abby’s possession Eshu takes time to manifest. We are first alerted to the demon’s presence by Abby masturbating in the shower (as if a woman’s sexual self-exploration is such a sin) and next by self-mutilation with a kitchen knife (perhaps as a form of self-flagellation for the previous misdemeanour).
After Abby causes the reverend some embarrassment during his Sunday sermon he attempts to make love to her that evening. Yet with abject disgust Abby sneers at his lines of seduction and tells him that he does not have enough to satisfy her. With a mixture of joy and contempt she gives him a fierce boot to the balls for good measure. It is this moment in which Abby breaks with her marital tradition of submissiveness and asserts a dominant position over her husband who meekly cowers at her verbal barrage. It may be the voice of Eshu that rolls off her tongue but perhaps the demon is only a cipher for her long dormant thoughts, kept hushed and never acted upon out of deference to her husband’s position in the community?
“Help us to put away all pretence and to face each other in deep trust, without fear or self pity. Let us be done with falsifying”.
These are the words Abby reads from a prayer book to a young couple who have sought her counsel with their marital problems. At the moment she reads this line Emmett opens the doors and looks in admiringly. The irony is that he has yet to realise that his notion of a successful marriage has been built on a sham. The moment Abby sees him, Eshu is manifested and her demeanour is one of hatred for her Emmett. She turns to the visiting young husband, rips of her shirt and declares that she is going to “fuck the shit out of him”. Emmett drags her upstairs where Abby then rapes him, beating him across the face in the process. The ritual humiliation is complete.
Soon afterwards Abby is convalescing at home and is paid a visit by the church organist. Abby ridicules the elderly woman for having lived the life of a being respectable widow, when the man whose surname she took “screwed you once and left you to rot like a rotten apple”. Shocked at such a secret made public, old Mrs. Wiggins suffers a heart attack and dies. One could presume that it is the all-knowing Eshu who knew and chose to announce that secret, but perhaps it was Abby herself spitting out the words. Maybe it was common knowledge as gossip around the church’s holy water cooler and Abby was fed up with such hypocrisy and decided to call the bluff on a life so virtuous, destroying it in the process.
The humiliation for Emmett continues when Abby goes missing and he finds her in a local nightclub, having already fucked one man to death (the young husband from earlier in the film) and now in the process of initiating a gang bang. When Emmett tries to take her home Abby mocks his religious position and the entire bar joins in the fun. Out of his comfort zone, with his church status offering providing no respect, his impotence is complete. It is only through the arrival of the bishop at the scene that saves Emmett, yet such interference only reinforces the son’s lack of authority.
The finale occurs in the evacuated nightclub’s bar. The Bishop is clearly the only man with the power to exert any control over Eshu (this fact is aided immeasurably by the almost lion-like presence of the towering, deep-voiced actor William Marshall, formerly a villain himself in Blacula and its sequel). But as he speaks his words of the exorcism’s ritual, Abby has one final shot to deliver.
“You might have fooled your son, but I know your hypocrisy. Wanna hear your mother’s opinion of your wonderful father, Emmett?”
It would appear that Abby is not the only woman left disappointed after marrying a respected member of the Louisville clergy. It would also seem apparent that the only thing Emmett shares with his father is an unjustified and inflated self-importance.
Naturally, Eshu is cast out and Abby is saved. Her words and actions during her time of possession dismissed as demonic bile and regarded with scant attention. The film ends with a happily reunited Abby and Emmett departing at the airport for vacation. Normal service (and servicing) is resumed.
Although raggedy produced and often slipshod in its execution, there is are a number of interesting ideas at play in Abby that the film does not deserve its status as a camp blaxploitation Exorcist ripoff, which unfortunately seems to be the consensus. If you can locate the film it is certainly worth a look.
For a film that deals with mythology, an awful lot has sprung up around the movie itself. In 1976 Warner Brothers launched court action against the producers and distributors claiming that Abby shared too many similarities with The Exorcist. The WB lawyers were kept busy at that time, bringing similar action against the makers of Beyond the Door, an Italian variant on their blockbuster hit. AIP did win the case eventually but with the film still too hot a potato, they decided (possibly in agreement with WB) against video and television distribution, leaving Abby to rot in the archives. The only copies available today are some rather scratchy and murky bootlegs that appears to be sourced from a battered 16mm print.
For all things Abby – related one should check out the excellent website williamgirdler.com which provides fine details about the director, the film’s production and a thorough interview with Abby herself, Carol Speed. The site also provides some information about the court case brought on by Warner Brothers and does mention that it caused the film to be pulled from theatres. No explicit time for this is given and the rest of the net is even murkier in such specifics. However there are a handful of sites that state the film was withdrawn after a single month / four weeks of release.
Let’s put that little embellishment to bed right now.
In a decisive but risky piece of counter-programming, AIP opened Abby on Christmas day of 1974, offering the only horror film of the season and one only a couple of features with a black audience in mind (Boss Nigger and The Black Godfather were also in limited release). The ploy was a remarkable success and the Christmas days numbers were so hot that AIP took out an ad in Variety trumpeting the figures, which included all-time one day records for its theatres in New York, Oakland, Milwaukee, Memphis, St. Louis and Jackson.
These were indeed excellent figures, and after its first week of release Abby was rated #11 on Variety‘s Top 50 films in release. Considering the competition included the likes of The Godfather II, The Towering Inferno, The Man With The Golden Gun, Murder On The Orient Express, Death Wish, Airport ’75 and Earthquake, the take was even more impressive.
However, for the most part Abby took a bit of a hit in its second week, except in New York where it maintained boffo business (over $80,000 in its second week at the Penthouse). Abby played for well over the month’s run where it was supposedly dragged, managing a solid seven weeks daydating in New York.
It then reappeared in New York in mid-February at 56 second run venues, enough to take it to #8 on Variety‘s Top 50.
And in late June it appeared in New York once again as a support feature for the first run of Bucktown, another AIP blaxploitation release. It is clear that by this time Abby had run its course as a viable commercial product, for the distributor did not even bother listing the fact the film was filling the lower half of the bill (Variety provided that information).
In regional markets Abby did not perform as strongly. Even in Louisville – where the film was shot and set -the strong opening week was a massive success ($20,000) and the drop off was immediate. By its fourth week it was playing to a virtually empty house ($2000).
So basically, Abby played itself out pretty quickly and whatever rentals AIP would have secured after 6 months would have been negligible. However it still did manage some overseas coin, opening here in Australia in August of 1975. In Melbourne, after a solid three weeks at the Albany cinema it jumped into the drive ins for an excellent double bill with The Creeping Flesh.
And as for claims that AIP destroyed all prints, well it was still bopping around Melbourne drive-ins as late as 1978, filling in the final slot of dusk-dawn horror-thons.
Until the exact details of the court settlement are disclosed (AIP head Samuel Z. Arkoff does not even mention the film at all in his autobiography) we will never know the exact story. But lets make it clear that the notion of it being pulled after a single month is a load of rubbish.
A film known of more than seen, Abby deserves re-evaluation, its reputation deserving of more than the campy Exorcist ripoff that Warner Brothers buried.