Thursday, January 5, 2023

Abby (USA, 1974)

We saw this prime slab of Blaxploitation trash as a pubescent and found the entire experience amazing, so we'll admit that we are somewhat prejudiced in the film's favor. But hell's bells, let us stand tall and shout loudly: Abby is a great fucking film!
Trailer to
Which, of course, does not mean that it is not a bad film, because it is. We would be hard placed to say that any of the lowbrow movies of the auteur film director William Girdler (see our review of his Day of the Animals [1977]) are "good" in the traditional sense, but that doesn't stop most of them from being good fun or, like Abby, great fun. Perhaps Abby's biggest flaw is the one flaw Abby shares with so many Blaxploitation classics: it was made by a honky. But then, what a honky! William Girdler was a true exploitation master, and as trashy and cheesy as his films often tend to be, they never fail to entertain and intrigue. Moreover, he was an independent mover and shaker who made his own films, the way he wanted to — perhaps, usually, to cash in on a popular genre or recent release, but always with his own personal slant. The world of film truly lost a rare talent when this regional filmmaker died...
But to the movie. Famously, Abby was a huge hit when it came out, earning somewhere around $4 million in its first month, only to be pulled by its distributor, AIP, when Warner Brothers threatened to sue them on the grounds that the film was an imitation of their highbrow (and definitely more boring) horror flick The Exorcist (1973 / trailer). It probably didn't help much that around the same time, in a newspaper interview, Girdler stated "Sure, we made Abby to come in on the shirttail of The Exorcist."
But the fact of the matter is: to come on someone's shirttails might be messy and impolite, but it is not the same thing as to copy. And while Abby is undeniably inspired by The Exorcist, and is both messy and impolite, it is anything but a copy. It just happened to be an American hit while, say, films like the Turkish carbon copy of The Exorcist, Şeytan (1974 / great scene), or the semi-copies like Spain's Excorcismo (1975 / trailer) and Germany's Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen (1974 / trailer), were not. And so Abby took the brunt of Warner's unjust, and probably legally shaky, anger* — and unlike in that mildly entertaining work of fiction, The Bible, in real life Goliath generally wins. AIP saw no reason to play David, having already more than earned a pretty penny back, so the film disappeared from the theatres.
* We would hypothesize that had Warner's had truly solid legal founding, today we would no longer still have such great, entertaining lowbrow classics as Alligator (1980) and Piranha (1978), or even trash like Battle Beyond the Stars (1980 / trailer) and the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 / trailer) — in regard to the last, 20th Century Fox and George Lucas did sue Universal, but in that case the fight was Goliath vs. Goliath, which is why the original Battlestar Galactica stuck around.
Today, almost fifty years after Girdler's Blaxploitation anti-classic was first released, a decent copy of Abby still has yet to be found — check your attic — but a scratchy, washed-out, totally grindhouse-experience copy can be found on YouTube, marred only by the bad sound. If English isn't your first language, you might find it problematic to understand, despite the fact that none of the characters really speak vernacular.
Set in William Girdler's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) — which might explain the movie's inexplicable, almost subliminal obsession with chicken — Abby opens with a surprisingly professional tracking shot in a park, which moves from high-up down to a table of students enjoying a going-away picnic with their professor, Dr. Garrett Williams (William Marshall [19 Aug 1924 – 11 June 2003] of Blacula [1972 / trailer] and Scream, Blacula, Scream [1973 / trailer]), who is on his way to Nigeria for an archeological dig. The picnic gives Dr. Williams the chance to explain to the audience, in that wonderfully characteristic voice of William Marshall, so vibrant and deep and manly that if we close our eyes it makes us wet enough to almost think we have diarrhea — is it just a coincidence that in his first film role, in Lydia Bailey (1952 / full film), he plays a character named King Dick? — the basic facts about the Yoruba deity Eshu, "the most powerful of all earthly deities".
It is during Dr. Williams's later excavations in Nigeria that he also happens to release the spirit of Eshu, or at least a demon claiming to be the deity, who hops and skips and jumps across the world to possess Abby (Carol Speed [14 Mar 1945 – 14 Jan 2022]), the Christian marriage-counselor wife of Dr Wiliams's own son, Pastor Emmett Williams (Terry Carter of Foxy Brown [1974 / trailer] and Tinto Brass's Nerosubianco a.k.a. The Artful Penetration of Barbara [1969 / trailer]). And slowly but surely, the dutiful wife becomes one ugly ball-busting bitch out to fuck everyone but her little-dick husband...
Abby is a hard film to take seriously, and it is never really all that scary, but as ridiculous as the movie is all the main actors — including Juanita Moore ([19 Oct 1914 – 1 Jan 2014) of Imitation of Life [1959 / trailer]), as Abby's mother, and handsome Austin Stoker ([7 Oct 1930 – 7 Oct 2022] of Assault on Precinct 13 [1976 / trailer], Horror High [1973 / trailer] and more), as Abby's cop brother Cass — do professional, convincing acting turns, displaying a gravitas and seriousness that is definitely at odds with the ludicrous material.
Okay, as Abby Carol Speed definitely chews up the scenery after she is possessed, but somehow it actually works on a tacky level, especially with added campiness of the cheap-shit demon make-up and wonderfully camp demon voice supplied by voice artist and actor Bob Holt ([28 Dec 1928 – 2 Aug 1985] of The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat [1974 / trailer] and Wizards [1977 / trailer]). The professionalism of the five main actors is also wonderfully jarring against the general thespian inability of everyone else in the movie, be it the students in the park during the opening scene, anyone in any given crowd scene (in the Pastor's church, for example), or the later bar scenes just prior to the surprisingly short climactic exorcism.
Although Abby was obviously already a somewhat bizarre film in itself when released, age has definitely added an additional, special note to the film. One cannot help but think that either life in America has substantially gone downhill for Afro-American families since 1974 or the Williams family moves about in an almost surreally racial-tension-free bubble. Not only is the church fully integrated, but when Pastor Williams later carjacks a car to chase his runaway, possessed wife, no one shoots him and his cop brother-in-law Cass is able to easily smooth things out off-screen. (More amazingly, Abby obviously suffers no repercussions for the seen and unseen deaths of Mrs. Wiggens, Russell, and the singular white guy she picks up and disappears "upstairs" with at the oddly empty and over-lit disco bar where Dr. Williams ultimately shows up in full Yoruba-clothed glory to conduct a Christian exorcism.)
Almost every aspect of the narrative development in Abby is head-scratching material, and logic is definitely sloppy dead throughout the movie. Why isn't Dr. Williams even fazed a bit by the obviously supernatural wind that blows apart his archeological dig when he releases the demon? Why and how does the demon jump around the world to possess Abby, instead of simply grabbing hold of someone closer to the dig where it is set free? Why does it do that non-scary stuff like shake the bed or blow Abby around the wash cellar before finally going for her body? Why does it manifest itself in fits before finally deciding to hunker down for good? What is it about raw chicken that gets Abby/Eschu so hot and bothered? Why does Pastor "Little Dick" Hubby turn so quickly to his father for help, and why does the Dr. Williams blow the scene so quickly after the exorcism? And how did he get there from Nigeria so fast? And why —
But perhaps questions like "Why?" and "How?" are best left at the door when you watch Abby. Instead, bathe in the wonderfulness of the sheen of normality that graces the ludicrosities that transpire in the movie. The pervading nonsensicality of everything is also nicely heightened by the wonderfully funky score provided by the sorely underappreciated Robert Ragland (3 Jul 1931 – 18 Apr 2012), a man who worked on innumerable great and/or crappy cult projects. (It is a soundtrack that is waiting to be discovered for sampling by today's musical artists.)
Abby definitely won't frighten you, but it definitely will entertain you! Heartily recommended! 
Full film on YouTube:

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