William Girdler was one of the kings of 1970’s exploitation films. His films varied widely, from natural disaster films, such as The Day of the Animals and Grizzly, to paranormal movies, such as The Manitou, and even blaxploitation films such as the Pam Grier vehicle Sheba, Baby. Girdler died in a helicopter crash in 1978 at the age of thirty, cutting short a career that included several hits and more than a few near-misses.
Perhaps the biggest of Girdler’s near-misses was 1974’s Abby, starring Carol Speed, William Marshall, Austin Stoker, and Academy Award nominee Juanita Moore. Riding the coattails of William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster The Exorcist, Abby details the possession of the title character and her exorcism.
Today, direct-to-DVD companies such as The Asylum deal in tie-in knock offs, such as Transmorphers and Snakes On A Train. However, The Asylum does it in a relatively subtle manner, such as hearing about the title first and then coming up with what their warped approximation of the expected product. Girdler, all of 27 upon Abby’s release, even went as far as to admit to the press that Abby was directly based on The Exorcist, a cardinal sin in the film industry. Warner Brothers, which produced The Exorcist, successfully sued, and American International withdrew Abby from circulation.
Abby begins not with the title character, but with her father-in-law, Dr. Williams (Marshall). Dr. Williams is a well-liked college professor, and as his expository students would say, is a theologian, a humanitarian, and an all right dude. He is also an expert in Eshu, a Yoruba chaos diety who, according to one of Dr. Williams’ students, runs around in the grass looking like a penis. Within five minutes, the good doctor is in Nigeria, opening a box that unleashes an evil spirit, which just so happens to travel to Louisville, Kentucky, and inhabit the aformentioned Abby.
As much effort is taken to prove that Abby is (initially) a good Christian woman as it took to prove that Dr. Williams is a good Christian man. Where in The Exorcist Ellen Burstyn is implicitly used as an exhibit of how single motherhood leads to the breakdown of society, and is at least partially the cause of her daughter’s possession, Abby is “pure”, and Eshu is “accidentally” released by her father-in-law. She is physically and spiritually violated by what is implied to be a penis God.
The very voice of Abby’s possessor is male, although Eshu’s sex drive is all heterosexual female: “All men are not created equal... In fact I’m gonna take Long George and fuck the shit out of him!” Compare this to The Exorcist employing Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon possessing Linda Blair.
While The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty was concerned with Catholic spirituality, the Christian themes are Protestant to fit the milieu. Pazuzu in The Exorcist subverts religion by masturbating with a cross, but Eshu partakes in the vices of the Earth, mainly in adulterous lust.
During the final confrontation with the spirit, Dr. Williams declares that Abby’s possessor is not even Eshu, but a weak imitator. It further adds to the confusion in an already jumbled film, but it’s far from the worst late-in-the-film B-movie conceit (if you've ever watched Rock N’ Roll Nightmare starring Jon-Mikl Thor, you know what I’m talking about).
The acting and production values on Abby are both low quality, but they add to the film’s charm. Louisville was the home base of director Girdler and thus made a convenient setting. However, this convenience was a drawback on April 3, 1974, when what was at the time the biggest tornado outbreak in United States history stormed through the central United States, including Louisville.
William Marshall tries his best as Dr. Williams, though this seemed to be beneath the man best known for playing Blacula, and later The King Of Cartoons. Carol Speed (The Mack; Savage) has some fun as Abby, especially after she becomes possessed, and sings her own composition, “Is Your Soul A Witness?”, during the church scene.
There are a lot of moments where Girdler is padding the film just to get to 89 minutes. For instance, we can’t even exactly tell when Abby becomes possessed; is it in the shower or in the basement? There are a couple of times, however, when Abby’s repetitiveness works, like when Abby enjoys fried chicken before her possession, and then enjoys cutting herself as she prepares more chicken. The moment when Abby’s possessor is rattled in the church after she sings a hymn works in a similar fashion.
When one hears about a long-lost blaxploitation ripoff of The Exorcist, you can't help but be disappointed with the results. The poster, with the epic tagline “Abby doesn’t need a man anymore... The Devil is her lover now!”, is meant to put people in the seats more than to convey the actual meaning of the film. Looking at the image of Carol Speed’s possessed head in front of a background of flames, you would’ve been easily tricked into thinking Abby could have been called The Blaxorcist. Instead, we wind up with Tyler Perry’s House of Exorcism.
So what if, ultimately, Abby is not as good as it could have been, even by blaxploitation standards? It's still a watchable movie that, while long and confusing, entertains. William Girdler was a poor-man’s William Friedkin, but in his brief career he was also a poor man’s Hitchcock, a poor man’s Irwin Allen, and one of the first poor man’s Stephen Spielbergs.
Moreover, it is pretty amazing that it made such a large return (upwards of $4 million when it was taken off screens) on a $100,000 investment, even though the funds were tied up until well after Girdler’s death. In the words of William Girdler: “Comparatively speaking, for what we spent on it, Abby was probably a better picture than The Exorcist.”
Sources And Further Reading :
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House, 1981. Goes more into detail about the subtexts of The Exorcist in response to the Women’s Liberation movement.