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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Abby (1974) review

 

ABBY 1974

Carol Speed (Abby Williams), William Marshall (Dr. Garnet Williams), Austin Stoker (Detective Cass Potter), Terry Carter (Reverend Emmett Williams)

Directed by William Girdler

"My god, Abby! Whatever possessed you to do a thing like that?!"--an example of some unintentionally funny dialog from the mostly serious ABBY (1974).

The Short Version: Carol Speed gets possessed by a Yoruban deity after William Marshall inadvertently releases it from an ancient box. From there on in, the movie occasionally resembles THE EXORCIST (1973) -- a film whose success regurgitated numerous imitators -- mostly from foreign shores. Speed, who often lovingly overacts in her movies, does it again here, but the subject matter allows her to run the emotional gamut outside of a lot of teeth gnashing; and not all of it is so easy to take seriously. It's still one of Girdler's better movies, and one that remains unavailable in even an average quality presentation. 




On an archaeological dig in Nigeria, Dr. Williams finds an ancient canister that houses a deadly spiritual entity that's unleashed once the box is opened. The demon, known as Eshu, is a powerful deity of the Yoruba religion. It finds a home within the body of Dr. Williams' daughter-in-law, Abby, who almost immediately begins displaying increasingly bizarre, and dangerous behavior. Dr. Williams returns to exorcise the horror he unwittingly unleashed onto the world.

In 1974, AIP had enjoyed its biggest fiscal year up to that time with over 37 million in revenue. One of their big hits of that year was ABBY, an EXORCIST style movie with an all black cast. The picture distinguished itself from other similar movies with a slightly different demonic possession motif and a stellar performance by Prince Mamuwalde himself, the esteemed William Marshall. However, the film hit a little too close to home for Warner Brothers rapturous success with THE EXORCIST from the previous year. They eventually took legal action against the filmmakers, but not before the picture became a huge success after several months in theatrical release.

Box Office magazine ad, January 1975
Movies about demonic possession were in demand after the Linda Blair head-turner compelled movie-goers to fork over their money in theaters to see her spit pea soup and shout a flurry of obscenities. 

Another film was released a short time later that was actually closer in tone to Friedkin's movie than ABBY was; that being Oliver Hellman's (Ovidio Assonitis) BEYOND THE DOOR (1974-US release in 1975). Warners went after that one, too. In contrast to two very successful and similar movies released around the same time, Warner's original production was banned in Tunisia after being labeled religious propaganda(!). It's merely speculation, but possibly this added fuel to the fire; and along with the big success of two independents, led Warner Brothers to sue AIP and Film Ventures for their bandwagon movies.

There were also other movies that rode the cash register coattails of the WB smash such as Spain's EXORCISM (1974), Italy's THE ANTICHRIST (released here as THE TEMPTER) again from 1974; and the bastardized version of Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL, THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1974). AIP produced another possession movie -- albeit not of the demonic variety -- in 1976 entitled J.D.'s REVENGE.



It's worth noting that contrary to seemingly every review of ABBY, the film played longer than a month (or two weeks, or two months depending on what you read) before it was pulled from theaters due to the lawsuit from Warner Bros. From late '74 to as late as July of 1975 the film was in circulation; and reportedly, it was also on screens in 1976. Apparently, the victory was more or less given to WB as AIP didn't bother to fight the case because they'd already made a bundle off of the movie.

Regarding the film itself, it's surprisingly well made although its low budget is painfully apparent in places (yet this may be more to do with lack of a decent looking print). It gets silly at times, too. Whenever Abby speaks in that deep, raspy demon voice (Bob Holt's pipes), nobody ever seems to question her sudden vocal deformity when she starts spouting off obscenities. Director William Girdler would later mine similar territory of ancient gods and demons with his last, and biggest budgeted picture, THE MANITOU (1978).

Frequent 70s Drive In starlet Carol Speed is the title character, and her subsequent possession allows for her usual exaggerated facial expressions to be put to good use. This is possibly her best role, and since she occupies the bulk of the movie, there's ample time for her to showcase her abilities. Unfortunately, the script doesn't give a sufficient amount of time for a satisfyingly gradual transformation from church-going housewife to sex-crazed demonic seductress -- but this is exploitation cinema, after all. Carol Speed counted singing and songwriting among her talents, and both of these are utilized here. She sings her own composition, 'Is Your Soul A Witness?' during a scene in a church not long after her body is overtaken by the demon.



Reportedly, William Marshall was not happy working on this picture. You'd never know it as his stoic presence greatly enhances this movie. Just like in BLACULA (1972) and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973), Marshall's seriousness and conviction defies the blaxploitation stigma. He did very few movies of this sort, but he brought an undeniable amount of gravitas to the films he starred in.



While it's difficult to properly give ABBY its due since there's not even a moderately decent print floating around, one thing worth mentioning on the technical side is the editing. At certain points in the film (particularly during the climactic duel with the demon), quick cuts jump back and forth between characters injecting both an unsettling vibe, and a feeling of action in real-time a la Sam Peckinpah.

Girdler may never have got the chance to make a great movie, he did make a slew of entertaining ones. He did a TEXAS CHAINSAW style movie before Tobe Hooper did it with THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972); the inflammatory and obscure THE ZEBRA KILLER (1974); blaxploitation again with SHEBA, BABY (1975); and 'Nature Amuck' pictures such as the worldwide hit GRIZZLY (1976) and DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977). He was killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines (he shot his 1976 film PROJECT: KILL there) on January 21st, 1978 (my birthday, actually).



ABBY is a solid picture and makes for entertaining viewing (if you don't mind the crummy quality). If you're a fan of the genre, there's also Austin Stoker (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) and Oscar nominated Juanita Moore in a supporting role among the cast. It's not THE EXORCIST, but a curious assimilation that places emphasis on the exploitation elements save for two serious lead performances from Carol Speed and William Marshall.

***For more about ABBY, you can read an interview with Carol Speed at williamgirdler.com.***

This review is representative of the CineFear Releasing DVD.

4 comments:

Hal said...

From the screencaps, your print of ABBY is about the same quality as mine. :) Gotta agree that it is still very entertaining. Also of note: after Abby becomes her old self, she curiously keeps the demonic eyebrows!

venoms5 said...

I think that's probably the only print floating around, unfortunately. I didn't notice the eyebrows, Hal. Good call. I will have to look out for that next time I watch it. Thanks for stopping by.

Max Evel said...

This is one I remember from when I was a kid. Well the poster anyways.
Never got a chance to watch it.
Time to find it!

venoms5 said...

I think the only version easily obtainable, Max, is a double feature disc with a movie whose title escapes me at the moment. The one I have is a single edition. But all versions are the same, that I am aware of. I do know there's no good quality release out there yet.

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