NOT Available on DVD: ABBY
Director William Girdler’s 1974 film ABBY was a clone of THE EXORCIST with an all-black cast starring William Marshall, fresh off his triumph as BLACULA, in the Max Von Sydow role. Shot for a meager $200k, ABBY was an urban hit, grossing four million dollars in its first month of release. Apparently the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers, who had produced THE EXORCIST, thought ABBY’s plot was too similar to that of their cash cow so successfully sued Girdler and the films distributor, American International. AIP was ordered to destroy all of their theatrical prints, and the film has never officially been licensed for home viewing. THE EXORCIST was the top grossing film of 1973 and spawned a virtual cottage industry of knock-off imitators, mostly from Europe, that flourished for the rest of the decade, so it seems an odd fate that ABBY was singled out for legal punishment and remains to this day unavailable on DVD.
ABBY tells the story of Abby Williams (Carol Speed), a 30ish Christian marriage counselor who lives with her minister husband Emmett (Terry Carter) and religious mother (Juanita Moore) in Louisville, Kentucky. Her father-in-law Garnet (William Marshall) is on an archaeological dig in Africa when he unearths the remains of a Hellish demon named Eshu whose sprit is transferred to Abby’s body back in the U.S. Abby’s first symptoms of demonic possession are obscenely drooling into her bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, cutting her arm with a kitchen knife, and screaming dementedly during her husband’s sermon. Soon she’s sexually insatiable, bellowing all types of obscenities in a low baritone voice, and puking nasty-colored bile. Garnet returns from Africa after a desperate phone call from his son leading to the expected good-vs-evil showdown climaxing in a nightclub exorcism highlighted by an exploding disco-ball.
ABBY plays much more like a standard horror film with black elements than a Blaxploitation horror film. ABBY differs from most Blaxploitation films of the period with its lack of street violence and urban setting and its authentic portrait of suburban black middle class (no pimps, but lots of big afro’s and wacka-wacka guitar!). ABBY has an undeservedly bad reputation and even made it into the Medved Brother’s ‘Golden Turkey Awards’ book as a nominee for ‘Worst Blaxploitation’ movie. It is cheesy and cheap, but that’s part of its charm. ABBY doesn’t take it self too seriously, director Girdler moves things along at a brisk clip, and it’s a funky, unpretentious good time. ABBY was produced to cash in on the coattails of THE EXORCIST but it’s tamer with no head-spinning or crosses to the crotch, and while there’s plenty of talk and screaming about sex, the only nudity is in silhouette and ABBY is not nearly as sexual titillating as most EXORCIST knock-offs (which all upped the age of the possessed from Linda Blair’s 13 to play up the sex angle).
William Girdler was the accomplished and prolific Kentucky-based Producer/Director/Writer of several memorable drive-in gems beginning with the nasty THREE ON A MEATHOOK in 1972. His incendiary 1974 thriller THE ZEBRA KILLER, about white man who dresses in black makeup before raping and killing young women, is also MIA on DVD. GRIZZLY (1976) was a hugely successful JAWS rip-off and DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977) was a well-made entry in the ‘nature’s revenge’ cycle. Girdler’s jaw-dropping THE MANITOU (1978) had a tumorous Indian shaman growing out Susan Strasberg’s back and SHEBA BABY (1975), his only other stab at Blaxploitation, was a great showcase for Pam Grier. All of these low-budget films were made with great skill and Girdler would no doubt have been destined for more fame had his career not been cut short in 1979 when he died at age 30 in a helicopter crash while scouting locations. William Marshall was a 6’5” Shakespearean trained actor who worked on Broadway and in opera and was known for his rich bass voice. With his commanding presence, Marshall, best known for playing the title role in BLACULA (1972), lends ABBY more gravitas than it deserves. Marshall would go on to play the King of Cartoons on ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse’ in the 80’s and died in 2003. Carol Speed achieved some cult status starring in a handful of Blaxploitation films including THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) and THE MACK (1975). Speed, who left show-biz after the 70’s, is quite over-the-top in ABBY especially in the crazy scene where she suffers a foul-mouthed demonic seizure while counseling a square-looking young couple
Blaxploitation collided with the horror genre several times during it’s early-70’s heyday most iconically with BLACULA (and it’s sequel SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM in 1973). Romeroesque zombies were featured in SUGAR HILL (‘And Her Army of Zombie Hit Men’- 1974) and J.D.’s REVENGE was about a brother possessed by a dead gangster. There was also DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE (1976), BLACKENSTEIN (1973), and THE BLUMMY (okay, I made that last one up). GANJA AND HESS, THE BEAST MUST DIE, THE THING WITH TWO HEADS and ALABAMA’S GHOST could also be considered examples of this cross-genre. ABBY was filmed under the title THE BLAXORCIST and it did copy the trick from THE EXORCIST of placing single frames of demon-possessed faces and other ‘subliminal’ images, but it’s a mystery to me why Warner Bros got so bent out of shape about ABBY and none of the dozens of other EXORCIST copies from this period (THE TEMPTER, THE SEXORCIST, BEYOND THE DOOR, HOUSE OF EXORCISM, THE ANTICHRIST, Paul Naschy’s EXORISMO, etc). Perhaps Warner Brothers was bothered by the relative success of ABBY or maybe it was easier to litigate a U.S. distributor than a European one or maybe it was… racism!!! (where’s Al Sharpton when you need him!?!) Though theatrical prints were destroyed, ABBY is not a ‘lost’ film. I saw a 16mm screening at a Cinema Wasteland show a couple of years ago and a ratty16mm print was used for an unlicensed DVD put out by the CineFear label that is now out of print. The original elements are in a lab somewhere and deserve, like the demon Eshu, to be exhumed as ABBY is solid 70’s entertainment.