Week 18 – Kentucky
There are legendary films. Then, there are films whose legend is in their myth — movies whose reputation precedes them.
Abby, I feel, falls into the later category.
I’ve always had an interest in seeing Abby after hearing about it some time ago in a book or on a Web site somewhere. I was particularly interested in the mystique surrounding Abby.
There were plenty of horror films made in the 1970s which were takes on traditional horror movies but geared toward black audiences — Blacula, of course, but also movies like Black Frankenstein. After the success of The Exorcist in 1973, the inevitable imitators followed. Of course, the blaxploitation genre wasn’t about to be left out in the cold and thus, Abby was born.
Still, I’ve never really had the motivation to seek Abby out — and Abby is one of those films that, if you want to see it, you have to seek it out. Despite having little in common with The Exorcist other than the theme of demonic possession, Warner Brothers filed suit against the makers of Abby and the film was quickly pulled from theaters after debuting on Christmas Day, 1974. Abby was never released on VHS and, due to questions over its current ownership, it’s only sort of had a DVD release. I say “sort of” because the DVD releases of Abby available on the Internet are pretty shabby and, while I’m not a huge stickler for DVD quality, the video quality of the “Black Exorcist Edition” and other versions of Abby you can order from Amazon.com are practically unwatchable.
Still, when I found out that Abby takes place and was filmed on location in Louisville, Kentucky, I figured this was my opportunity to finally check out the so-called “black Exorcist” — scars and all. I watched a whole movie last week on YouTube. This couldn’t be much worse, could it? Anyway, the movie was bound to be awesome. I mean, how do you take the can’t-lose film premise of a blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off and screw it up?
That’s the question I asked myself before settling in to Abby. An hour and 1/2 later, I had my answer.
Abby opens with your typical 1970s boom-chicka soundtrack and the logo of American International, an exploitation film distributor best known for its relationship with B-movie king Roger Corman.
In the opening scene, William Marshall — aka Blacula aka The King of Cartoons — talks with students on a college campus. Marshall’s character, Dr. Garett Williams, is leaving on a research trip to Africa. Williams is a doctor but he’s apparently a minister as well, since he wears one of those funny collars. The sight of Marshall gives viewers what is commonly referred to as “false hopes.”
The students are sad that Dr. Williams is going away. The filmmakers, on the other hand, are happy, because this plot development gives them the chance to roll stock footage of Africa accompanied by more boom-chicka music, which is far easier to do than shoot actual scenes — you know, with actors … delivering dialogue.
Now in Africa, Williams comes across a puzzle box while on an archaeological dig. Movie logic dictates that the good doctor, of course, must open the box right there and then. Of course, this releases an evil spirit trapped inside of the contraption, that travels across the Atlantic Ocean to Louisville, Kentucky, to the home of William’s son Emmett (Terry Carter) and his daughter-in-law Abby (Carol Speed).
It’s not soon after the arrival of the evil spirit that Abby starts exhibiting weird behavior. She foams at the mouth and begins lapsing into what appears to be spontaneous bouts of orgasmic pleasure. This occurs at inappropriate times, like when she’s cutting up a piece of raw chicken. It’s almost as if Abby has suddenly come down with a really bad case of Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder — which is a real thing. Little known fact: Before doctors determined that Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder — or Restless Genital Syndrome — existed, it was assumed that all women who experienced symptoms of this disorder were possessed by the evil spirit Eshu.
Abby’s condition worsens to the point where she becomes a regular nymphomaniac. In a hilarious scene, while counseling two people about to get married, Abby attempts to release the husband-to-be’s cobra from his shorts. Like crime coverage by local news programs, it’s all fun and games until a white woman dies. In this case, when an old white woman visits Abby and Emmett’s home, Abby acts up and gives the elderly woman a fatal heart attack.
Emmett, concerned about his wife’s behavior, takes her to the hospital for an MRI or a CAT Scan or some other head-scanning procedure, but the facility’s machines — not equipped to detect the presence of evil spirits — detect nothing. What can I say? It was the 1970s, a time when not all hospitals had a machine to detect demons. Abby smiles sweetly at the hospital staff until Emmett is alone in the room with her, at which point she “hulks up.”
Abby breaks out of the hospital and hits the bars in search of fresh man meat. She picks up one gentleman and they head out to his car. After the two get into the vehicle, there is much rocking and smoke billows from the car’s windows.
Emmett and Williams, who took the first plane back from Africa as soon as he learned that something evil was afoot, finally track down Abby and confront her. Williams tells two men to grab Abby by the arms, but she uses the powers of Eshu to force the men to throw themselves into furniture in an unintentionally hilarious bad bit of stunt work.
From this point on, it’s your standard exorcism scene. Much debris flies about, Abby levitates, etc… Williams is eventually able to cast out the demon. He remarks that the demon was not Eshu but, in fact, a lesser demon posing as Eshu. His rationale is that, if it had been Eshu that possessed Abby, she would have put up more of a fight. As far as exorcisms go, an amateur could have cast out this demon.
So, thanks to the skills of Dr. Williams, Abby is back to normal. The final scene shows Abby and Emmett boarding a plane where they’re headed on vacation somewhere … and just when you think the filmmakers are going to go for one last scare — it’s over. The credits roll.
I return to my earlier question: How do you screw up an idea as genius as a blaxploitation Exorcist?
1. Take yourself far too seriously. Play it straight. Discard any sense of parody — anything that might acknowledge that maybe — just maybe — a blaxploitation Exorcist is a silly idea.
2. After choosing to play it straight, take out all the “good stuff” that makes The Exorcist still shocking today — the spinning head, the pea soup, the crucifix to the crotch. You would think that, based on Abby’s premise, there would be at least be plenty of opportunity for copious amounts of nudity; but … there’s not. There’s little violence save some poorly choreographed fights scenes. In fact, if it weren’t for Abby’s potty-mouth, I’m certain the movie could have easily earned a PG-rating.
3. Replace the “good stuff” with needless shots of people dancing and other miscellaneous filler. This comes naturally to William Girdler, the director of this film, who in this movie takes every chance he can to roll extraneous footage in lieu of an actual scene that moves the plot forward.
4. Top it all off with a groovetastic boom-chicka boom-chicka soundtrack.
This movie’s a bad trip, dig?
Next week: Born on the bayou! It couldn’t be … is that the guy from Life is Beautiful? And who’s that with him? Is that … Tom Waits?
Abby on YouTube
Matt D.’s Top 5 Black Horror Movie Characters
4. Big Daddy from 2005’s Land of the Dead (played by Eugene Clark)
3. Blacula from 1972’s Blacula (played by William Marshall)
2. Ben from 1968’s Night of the Living Dead (played by Duane Jones)
1. Candyman from 1992’s Candyman (played by Tony Todd) (Click here to add this to your Netflix instant queue!)
What African-American horror movie characters would be on your list? Peep me some feedback and let me know.