Thursday, February 21, 2013

Abby (1974) dir. William Girdler

Logline: During an archaeological research trip to Nigeria, Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall) unwittingly unleashes the African Yoruba trickster spirit Eshu, which then hops on a transcontinental flight and implants itself in Williams's daughter-in-law, a marriage counselor named Abby (Carol Speed). Under Eshu's devilish influence, Abby hurls around potty language, drools milk, grows some mean eyebrows, and chats up all the men down at the bar. Will Williams be able to return to America fast enough tie a bib onto Abby, exorcize her demon, and save her eternal soul?

William Girdler's Abby was hardly the only film to brazenly ride the box office cash wave that Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) stirred up in the mid-1970s (Beyond the Door (1974), Şeytan (1974), Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil (1974), and Exorcismo (1975) are all as guilty), yet nonetheless it was the one to suffer Warner Brothers' wrath, being sued nearly out of existence by the studio after a short but lucrative run in theaters. (Unlike the others, Abby was an American production and so more susceptible to copyright claims. It's worth noting: Warner won the lawsuit). American International Pictures, having made their quick buck, allowed Abby to languish in obscurity for decades afterwards, and the film's availability in the U.S. has been plagued ever since by ownership questions, degraded prints, and subpar home video releases, all of which have done little to salvage the film's reputation.  Girdler, who was in the prime of a very productive exploitation movie career and would tragically die in a helicopter accident in 1978 at the all-too-young age of 30, went of after Abby's completion and disappearance to do more blaxploitation (Sheba, Baby (1975)) and horror (Grizzly (1976), Day of the Animals (1977), The Manitou (1978). Grizzly, the most unabashed of Jaws ripoffs (obscuring the infringement merely by replacing the shark with a bear), demonstrates that Abby's fate had little effect on the sort of films he signed on to make. Exploitation-- even exploitation of other films-- was his game for life.

Divorced from its post-release baggage, Abby isn't all that bad. Warner Brothers' complaint wasn't unfounded-- it is fundamentally The Exorcist with an African American cast, cashing in on two fads at once-- but there are enough differences in tone and style to make them divergent viewing experiences. In contrast to its prestige-oozing forebear, Abby is an inventive and amusing cheapie that plays itself up for entertainment value. Its gravely serious script belies the visual fun the film has with Carol Speed's goofy, milk-spewing performance as the demonically influenced Abby, who curses like the meanest of sailors while tossing drunken sleazeballs around a bar with her mind. Her being an adult also allows for more overt sexuality than Linda Blair's teenaged Regan was capable of (though nothing here-- like Abby's erotic showertime-- comes close to besting the explicitness of Regan's violent crucifix masturbation). But then, the film fails to use this advantage in order to make any coherent commentary upon 1970s sexual mores, taboos, and hypocrisies because, again, Abby's demonic sexuality is played for giggles: in one scene, she leads a randy but conflicted man to his automobile for some hanky panky, which we see from outside the car as it comically rocks back and forth and fills up with hellfire smoke. Another interesting difference is how Abby downplays the power of its possessing demon, with Blacula's William Marshall portraying a bishop who coolly labels the demon a fraud and easily expels him from his young host. Besides the bishop's brief inciting sojourn to Africa and some small but ultimately inconsequential lip-service paid to African religious belief, the film avoids incorporating any contemporary social issues involving race into its plot, which makes it a very hollow vessel indeed. It does, however, employ a pretty smooth generic funk soundtrack, so I can't bring myself to accuse it of being totally bereft of soul.

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