Film: Abby (1974)

July 9, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Horror / Supernatural / Blaxploitation

Synopsis: After mistakenly releasing the ‘trickster’ spirit Eshu, a Bishop returns to Kentucky to save his son’s wife Abby from a malignant possession in this classic yet still-suppressed Exorcist rip-off.

Special Features:  n/a




During a 6 year period, William Girdler managed to beat the odds and carve out a respectable position as an indie writer-producer-director within the exploitation area until his sudden death at the age of 30 while scouting locations for what would’ve been his 10th film.

Among his work, Grizzly (1976), a so-called Jaws rip-off, was a huge success, as was his Exorcist rip-off Abby (1974), but the latter film remains legally unavailable due to a lawsuit that’s kept it and any decent prints out of circulation for decades.



The facts are blurry, but it seems after the American International Pictures-distributed film earned a solid $4-$6 million at the box office, Warner Bros. sued AIP and Girdler until a settlement finally released frozen revenues, but Abby was withdrawn, prints were possibly destroyed, and the lore surrounding what or may not be a blaxploitation classic or overrated cult film grew, big time.

The lawsuit seems preposterous today, especially when cash-in films have sated the home video market, either riding on the success of bigger & better studio blockbusters, or beating release dates and making quick & easy cash, as producer Roger Corman managed when Carnosaur (1993) infamously preceded the wide release of Jurassic Park.

WB also sued the makers of Beyond the Door (1974), and yet producer Ovidio Assonitis’ trashy Exorcist rip-off didn’t vanish – whatever settlement ensued enabled the film to remain in circulation in cinemas and on home video, where it continues to resurface in special editions on DVD and Blu-ray.

So why is Abby still a suppressed film, 43 years after its theatrical run?

The truth may be as simple as smaller studio AIP and producer Girdler felt bullied, and perhaps overwhelmed by WB’s considerable financial and legal resources to litigate Abby into oblivion. Feisty Assonitis may have put up a bigger fight, and with Beyond‘s $15 million gross, WB may have realized if the thing was still raking in money, why not have a piece of a classier production with internationally recognized stars over a cruder indie flick whose grosses may have peaked? The studio may also have felt that a blaxploitation cast lacked broader appeal, and making Abby a stark lesson for all served a better purpose than allowing it to exist and thrive.

Beyond is overlong, dumb, and sports more flagrantly imitative scenes than Girdler’s little shocker, which is more inventive and grounded by excellent performances from Carol Speed and William Marshall, the eloquent-voiced star of AIP’s own diptych Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973).

Abby was clearly the undeserving loser in a legal war that reportedly ended in 1978, but nevertheless kept the film locked up due to fears of opening a Pandora’s box of legal issues which, in 2017, are likely routine within the home video realm.

Many films and alternate versions thought lost or enmeshed in rights have appeared on disc – the original version of Gaslight (1940) was released by WB in 2004, and the multiple cuts of Blood Bath (1966) via Arrow in 2016 – so there’s no reason for Girdler’s lo-fi supernatural thriller to breed dust in a vault. It’s just the will, the patience, the financial commitment, and untangling the rights web that’s perhaps so daunting: AIP’s catalogue is owned by MGM, but the percentage of Girdler’s / his estate’s ownership in the film (if any at this stage) is unknown; the details of the settlement may be quite murky; and there’s the question of what prints or negative survive, their respective condition, and restoration needs and final costs.

And yet in spite of these significant but hardly unique problems Abby is perhaps the most widely seen corporate-suppressed blaxploitation film in history, thanks to a reportedly lone 16mm print that was scanned to tape a while ago, and has been bootlegged on at least a trio of DVD releases with bogus claims of being ‘digitally remastered.’ The same 16mm transfer is also circulating right now on YouTube in a further compressed form.

With over 21,000 views on YouTube, WB, MGM, and Girdler’s estate could be making a little money from the sale of a proper special edition, digital streaming, and licensing rights for the film’s broadcast and soundtrack sale to niche markets, so let’s take a crack at the film’s mythic status and assess its virtues and idiocies.

Whereas director William Friedkin begins The Exorcist (1973) with angry fighting dogs, the discovery of a statue in Iraq, and cross-cutting to the family of pre-teen Regan in Georgetown, Abby has Bishop Williams (Marshall) being given a present – a great big chrome-plated cross – by his students before he travels to Nigeria to search for religious remnants of Eshu, a ‘trickster’ spirit that’s portrayed as a vengeful, highly sexual demon.

Meanwhile, Williams’ son Emmett (always reliable, always solid Terry Carter) is a minister who moves into a new house with beloved wife Abby (Speed) and her mother Miranda (Juanita Moore).

The day of the move-in, Abby’s brother Cass (Austin Stoker) drops by. A detective with a protective streak for Abby and good friends with Emmett, as mundane as the move-in scene may be, it firmly cements the Williamses as a strong extended family with deep respect for each other, especially their respective parents. Emmett’s also the local minister while Abby, who sings in the choir, is also a Christian marriage counselor. They are part of a middle class family which Girdler nor co-screenwriter / co-producer Gordon Cornell Layne treat as clichés, and are fallible members of a tight community.

For a blaxploitation entry, Abby contains no gangs, drug dealers, nor loud furry Cadillacs. Robert O. Ragland’s score settles into more orchestral material after the obligatory R&B title track that plays over the main and end credits.

The benevolent community ties is also a smart set-up, because after enjoying likeable, affable characters who could be of any ethnic background, much in the way Regan’s family unit is smashed repeatedly by demon Pazuzu, the Williams in Abby and their otherwise solid marriage are cruelly taunted by Abby’s increasingly odd behaviour: self-mutilation while prepping a church dinner, and sudden mood shifts which see her becoming lewd, verbally profane, and like Regan, emitting a growling male voice whenever Eshu takes over and teases, insults, and physically smacks down Emmett.

William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist is centered on the trauma inflicted on a child, and chronicles the demon’s manipulation of the child’s fragile frame to lash out against caring adults, but Abby deals with a greater if not more tangible realm of friends & family who become targets for the malevolent spirit within Emmett’s wife. Perhaps to safeguard the film from a lawsuit (and wholly avoid dealing with child labour laws), there are no kids in Abby. The Williams’ are a new couple whose future will likely include children, but perhaps for the sake of dramatic economy, the conflicts deal with marital and familial relationships being torn apart.

Abby’s possession is in fact 100% the result of Bishop Williams’ archeological digs in Nigeria and the opening of an ancient ‘Pandora’s box’ that unleashes Eshu. Williams later confesses to Emmett that he was the one who released the vicious spirit from the locked box, but in the first of many silly conceits, no matter what horror occurs on screen, the next day everyone’s fine. Bishop Williams is back in his Nigerian office with assistants after Eshu’s ‘windy’ attack in the caves, and there’s no mention of the clearly supernatural encounter among the men nor when Emmett calls his father asking for a quicker return home to mend Abby’s worsening behaviour.

It’s similarly absurd that Emmett would keep suppressing his fear that something’s not quite right with his Christian wife after he’s teased, sworn at, tossed around, and seen furniture broken. One can argue his ignorance feeds into the final exorcism scene in which Emmett may lose his fortitude and fall for Eshu’s faux pleadings for release as Abby, but it takes serious living room damage before Emmett realize his wife is fully possessed. (And even then, after a wooden divan crashes through a window, neighbours fail to call the police, but I digress.)

The most blatant parallels between Abby and The Exorcist reside in a young woman possessed by a malevolent force, spouting matter from the mouth, although unlike the buckets of pea soup in Beyond, Abby just foams like a rabid dog; a hospital montage where she’s x-rayed by a terrifying contraption; and the exorcism which releases the mean demon after a lengthy theological / verbal battle between demon and a man of God.

Instead of being house-bound (literally) like Regan, Girdler opts for a more overt switch to exploitation tropes where a highly sexual Abby teases & kills men, ultimately settling in a dive where she beds sleazebags off-screen before Emmett and brother Cass arrive in the film’s other absurd conceit: that Det. Cass Potter + Reverend Emmett Williams manage to find the precise bar in a town of booze cans where Abby may not have even gone.

When Bishop Williams joins the boys, he comes armed with accoutrements necessary to control Eshu and expunge the demon from a woman of pure heart. Instead of being fastened to a bed by two strangers (priests), the two most important men in Abby’s life grab her wrists, and the good Bishop engages in a dialogue of riddles, repartee, and moral debate – the kind of finale Blatty himself intended for Exorcist III (1990) before the producers mandated reshoots and more violence.

Girdler’s budget was pretty slim, hence a booze can exorcism, but it works because Marshall is so commanding as a Bishop who’s 100% confident he can outwit and out-riddle a scoundrel. Speed is equally potent, and although she has much less material to dramatize the internal struggle as Eshu seeks to smother her independence, her shift from angel to demon is often very arresting.

Less effective is Girdler’s flash cuts of Speed in green makeup and big brows to convey Eshu’s presence, but it’s worth pointing out those flash edits preceded Friedkin’s restoration of that cinematic trickery in the 2000 edit WB released as The Version You’ve Never Seen (aka The Bullshit Director’s Cut).

Even with tight resources, Ragland’s score offers some interesting instrumental and electronic shading, and there’s some inventive sound design for the breathing, wheezing presence when Eshu is swirling inside the Williams’ new home. Girdler’s spastic fadeouts that follow these moments, his quick rack-focusing to blurry images before a scene cut, and use of looped echoes are admittedly cheap maneuvers to push the narrative forward without paying too much attention to structure and logic, but at 89 mins., Abby flows faster than Beyond, which pads its length with redundant material, such as a ridiculous street wandering, and a creepy music troupe led by a nose flutist.

The Kentucky locations – filmed in Girdler’s home state – are gritty and atmospheric, and a smart alternative to a generic Los Angeles suburb which would’ve been the likely location had AIP had more say in the production.

The top-level cast is uniformly solid, but there are moments when the dialogue and even retained takes feel like hastily shot versions of quick rewrites and a shoot n’ run style; the otherwise fancy opening scene with a crane shot has Marshall engaging in serious expositional chatter with students, and the stiff actors playing his students resemble novices reading off cue cards, shot hastily with little regard for screen continuity.

It’s tough to fully assess the film’s technical finesse because in the existing full-frame transfer William Asman’s 1.85:1 cinematography is chopped to 1.33:1 and features terrible colours and murky browns and blacks. It’s doubtful Girdler’s film looked so ugly in cinemas, but Bub Asman and Corky Ehlers’ editing is sometimes a bit rough, mostly due to Girdler’s odd cross-cutting and flash frames in the action scenes.

With so much going for the film, it’s baffling & tragic AIP didn’t have the balls to stand by Girdler and come to a compromise, but at the time WB may well have thought an upstart production stealing some of their thunder, if not benefiting from the wake of The Exorcist’s pricey publicity campaign was too big of an insult, but that was 43 years ago, so one would suspect some of the home video labels currently benefiting from MGM’s new crop of licensed HD transfers might convince the studio’s assets management division to get working on clearing rights once and for all, and allowing labels like KINO, Twilight Time, or Arrow Video to create a definitive special edition which would bring into permanent circulation a seriously orphaned blaxploitation classic.

William Girdler’s modest filmography includes Asylum of Satan (1972), Three on a Meathook (1972), The Zebra Killer (1974) co-authored with Gordon Cornell Layne, Abby (1974), ‘Sheba, Baby’ (1975), Grizzly (1976), Project: Kill (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), and the kitschy directorial swan song The Manitou (1978).

Austin Stoker’s best-known films include Girdler’s The Zebra Killer, Abby, ‘Sheba, Baby’, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), numerous episodic TV series, and the cult TV movie Terror Among Us (1981). Carol Speed’s modest filmography includes the WIP classic The Big Bird Cage (1972), The New Centurions (1972), and the cult films Bummer (1973) and The Mack (1973). Juanita Moore’s career harkens back to the 1950s with Affair in Trinidad (1952) and Imitation of Life (1959), but she also appeared in The Skin Game (1971), Girdler’s Zebra Killer and Abby, The Mack, and Two Moon Junction (1988).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Director Site — 1998 Starlog interview with William Marshall — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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