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Rental Review: Abby (1974)

July 12, 2011
  • Dir. William Girdler
  • Released by American International
  • Written by G. Cornell Layne
  • Rating: **

“The story of a woman possessed!” declared the tagline on the poster. Audiences in 1974 were all-too-willing to see another movie in the vein of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror film The Exorcist, and American International Pictures decided to take up the task. Unfortunately for them, Warner Bros. did not take kindly to the mockbuster and sued the film into obscurity. (Warner would have less luck taking on the Italian ripoff Beyond the Door that same year, since that film’s distributors challenged the lawsuit.)

Despite being an obvious attempt to cash in on The Exorcist‘s success (which Warner itself would try with the hilariously misguided Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977), Abby offered its own unique spin by incorporating another popular genre of the era, the blaxploitation film. AIP had multiple successes with these low-budget films, which featured mostly African-American lead actors.

Blaxploitation horror had already proven itself profitable through AIP’s 1972 hit Blacula and its 1973 sequel, Scream Blacula Scream. Other companies would try to imitate the formula with less success, but Abby had the advantage of Blacula‘s titular star, William Marshall. Thankfully, someone had the good sense to stop AIP from calling the film The Blaxorcist, although it was supposedly considered.

Abby is not simply a remake of the Friedkin film with black actors, however. The script addresses different themes than those explored by William Peter Blatty, and the incorporation of elements from the Yoruba religion of Africa distinguishes it from the Assyrian mythological ties in The Exorcist, especially since the film refuses to simply pit it against Christianity.

The trickster god Eshu is freed from an archaeological site much like Pazuzu by this film’s resident exorcist, played by Marshall, but the climax of the movie challenges the idea that the possessing force is really Eshu, and Marshall uses a combination of Christian andYoruba iconography to dispel the impostor demon. The implication of the ending is that the Civil Rights era Afro-American identity movement is not being vilified by the movie.

Instead, the real threat posed by the false Eshu is that of women’s liberation. Notably, Abby (Carol Speed) is an adult woman, unlike Linda Blair’s 12-year-old Regan MacNeil. She is happily married to a reverend (Terry Carter), with whom she diligently works as a meet helper, a blissfully subject wife. That is, until she is possessed by a demon posing as a sex god who dominates and destroys his enemies through eroticism.

After her possession, she takes on a predatory stance toward men, often belittling their penis size and always pinning them down while assuming the dominant position on top of them. She is in control during sexual encounters, and that makes her a threat to the patriarchical purity of Christian-approved male-dominant lovemaking.

She also frequents the local discotheque, where she chooses her victims for affairs and subsequent murders. The night club setting, with its alcoholic indulgences and implied hedonism, suggests a fall away from civilized Christianity in the black community, one that the film initially suggests as being tied to African paganism before clarifying as being rooted squarely in modern-day American debauchery.

As in The Exorcist, modern science is shown to be ineffective against the demon, and Abby’s skeptical policeman brother (Austin Stoker) comes around to the side of Yoruba-Christian spirtuality by the end. The church and its values are venerated by the film, and the demon’s argument for human free will is actively ignored by the sin-dismissive characters during the exorcism. Then again, who was expecting a fair counterpoint from a possession movie?

The film itself is competent enough, considering its low budget. The actors, all of whom would appear in numerous blaxploitation films, serve the decent script well, and the direction by William Girdler (who also made the exploitation flick Three on a Meathook, the Jaws knockoff Grizzly, and the Tony Curtis thriller The Manitou) would probably come off better if any of the existing prints of the film were not in such horrible condition.

Sadly, Warner Bros.’s efforts proved quite successful, and the film was almost entirely cast into outer darkness. The current DVD release offers a rather shabby, faded, scratch-covered print that lessens the film’s potential impact. The quality is not unlike that of a supercheap DVD release of a public domain film. Ergo, only people with a strong interest in the movie will be able to bear its presentation.

Who are those people? Primarily lovers of blaxploitation films and possession flicks, who should find this movie an interesting curiosity. Despite being a fairly shameless imitation of The Exorcist at times (even attempting to replicate the subliminal Captain Howdy face imagery, with less success), Abby gives the material a fresh angle and has its own societal concerns to address. It’s not an amazing film, and feminists might take exception to its argument, but it’s still better than Exorcist II or Exorcist: The Beginning.

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From → Film Criticism

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