Thursday, 5 May 2016
It was inevitable that during the Blaxploitation cycle of the early 1970s, the Devil would try to possess some of the profits from 1973’s The Exorcist by association. American International Pictures rushed into production with Abby, the tale of a woman taken over by an evil spirit claiming to be Eshu of the Yoruba religion.
Whilst the subject matter and some plot threads have commonality with The Exorcist, William Girdler, a later accomplished exploitation director of such films as Grizzly , managed to inject enough original and amusing elements for this beast to work its demonic charms as a stand-alone. Most obviously, ABBY features an all-black cast. The spirit’s host, as aforementioned, is also not a child but an adult woman, Abby (Carol Speed), the wife of a Louisville pastor Rev, Emmet Williams (Terry Carter). She somehow becomes the possessee after her husband’s father Bishop Garnet Williams (William ‘BLACULA’ Marshall) releases it in in a cave in Nigeria. He opens the Pandora’s Box containing Eshu and the dust creates havoc, sending his assistants flying. Something evil has been freed.
The action inexplicably transfers to America, to Abby’s home in Louisville, Kentucky. We see the demon sneaks up on her as a sihouette in the shower and penetrate her almost literally in a scene of almost orgasmic union for her and ‘it’. As Abby/Eshu later declaims; “Now the fun starts”. Abby begins to manifest symptoms of take-over, beginning with a coughing fit in church and an attempted kitchen knife self-harming accompanied by some absurdly lascivious lip-licking. The dead give-away is the deep rasping EXORCIST-style demonic voice Abby channels during her marriage guidance counselling work. A recurring mischievous kink of Eshu’s is that he likes to make his presence felt when her husband is there. There’s clearly only tolerance for one old time religion in the house now. During the Rev’s interruption of one of her couples’ sessions, Eshu spits abrasive profanities at him, culminating in “I’m gonna take George upstairs and fuck the shit out of him!”.
Such unorthodox treament suggestions don’t go unnoticed, and after restraining his wife, Emmet surprises us all by contacting his father. Based on the last time we saw him, this should have been via a séance, but no, Bishop Garnet is alive and well and continuing his work as normal, utterly unharmed. The worsening situation with Abby eventually forces him to catch a plane to Louisville. Getting the evil wind of this, Eshu/Abby spitefully mocks her husband: “I wanna thank you for callin’ that motherfuckin’ father of yours. Tell him I’ll be waiting!”. The Bishop tells Emmet and his son, police Detective Potter (Austin Stoker) that he is sure Eshu is possessing Abby to terrorise him. Assuming the spirit can’t control a man of God, couldn’t it have tried to kill him in that cave in Nigeria? Or taken over someone else back there? We still don’t know why or how it bothered to come all the way to the USA. Maybe there’s a malevolent Fed-Ex service out there –or a jiffy bag for ju-ju.
Well, the devil works not only in mysterious ways but sporadic ones. This evil imp is only interested in part-time possession it seems. Abby/Eshu can switch to the appearance of sanity in front of hospital nurses (where she’s hopelessly treated for brain issues), and more worryingly with nightclub customers. Yes, she’s goes on the run and cruises for souls like a satanic bar-fly. Her first hapless conquest is a buttoned-up geek whose lover’s lane tryst with her ends in car-quaking doom and bursts of smoke out of the window. Serves him right for picking up (screw)-loose women.
Despite some sharp action editing and chilling sound design, the horror homicide sequences have two annoying style impositions; repeated freeze-frame scene endings as though Girdler doesn’t know how to finish, and an over-kill of incessant subliminal face-shots (another definite Exorcist rip-off) of various fleeting devil images who nevertheless all resemble Munsters.
Anyhow, hot on the demon’s trail are Emmet, the Bishop and Det. Potter. Now, if you thought Eshu’s transatlantic trip didn’t make sense, wait till you see Potter’s law-enforcement brain in action. When told that his possessed sister has been spotted in a bar, he is hilariously obtuse: “What is she doing in a bar? She doesn’t drink!” He shows similar density when they case all the local drinking joints; when he shows a photo of Abby to a bar-owner friend, notice the insert shot of the photo - it looks nothing like her.
Still, even with this haphazard sleuthery, the intrepid trio track Abby to a bar for a low-budget climax where the Bishop performs various incantations while the others pin her down. He urges the men to “Remain calm in your Christ centre”. She tries all the Exorcist tricks - appealing to each man with guilt-trip voices of their loved ones and even a spot of levitation. This culminates in the Bishop dealing mano-a-demon with the evil interloper, where he enrages it by insisting it’s an imposter: “You’re nothing but a minor spirit!” There is a speaking in tongues face-off and then eventually Abby foams at the mouth with supernatural toothpaste (no pea soup here) and the sinister squatter exits. Intriguingly, it’s left ambiguous as to who the demon was. Was it Eshu or a foul impersonator? We’ll never know. Abby and her husband leave for a plane at the airport in a rushed closing scene. What, no open ending?
Abby is an enjoyably silly film, which was doing very well at the box office to the tune of $4m in its first month till Warner Brothers slapped an injunction on it for alleged copyright violation, forcing it to be pulled from distribution and only re-surfacing in the last few years on DVD. The remaining prints are of low quality, supposedly due to Warner’s getting rid of all the decent prints they could find. I managed to get hold of one such DVD version, which has a couple of editing jumps and colour distorted moments but it’s still watchable.