Thursday, October 20, 2005

CULT MOVIE Blogging: Abby (1974)

The early 1970s represented the great epoch of blaxploitation low-budget filmmaking. In the horror genre, this meant that we saw titles such as Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), J.D.'s Revenge (1976), among others. One of the most unique and under-discussed examples of the blaxploitation horror line from that time was Abby (1974), directed by the late, lamented William Girdler.

First, I must admit to having a Girdler fetish. I can pop one of his films into the DVD or VCR player anytime and thoroughly enjoy it, warts and all. William Girdler did not always make very artistic films. In fact, some of his movies are downright amateurish and laughable. And yet, I'm drawn to this unusual filmmaker because I enjoy low-budget filmmaking, and because in every Girdler film, I end up feeling as though he was trying (and perhaps failing...) to give me my money's worth.

In the 1970s (and in addition to Abby), Girdler gave us the incredible Asylum of Satan (1971), Grizzly (1976), Day of the Animals (1977) and The Manitou (1978) before his untimely and tragic death at age 30. If you look at the arc of Girdler's career, you can see that his horror films become increasingly more proficient as he gained practical experience. The Manitou, his final masterpiece, is absolutely absurd...but also 100% entertaining. In other words, I guess I feel that Girdler went from making bad bad-movies to good bad-movies, if that makes any sort of sense. His death cut short a promising career on the ascent. Who knows what great work he might have forged in the 1980s had he lived? I mourn his passing, and the fact that he didn't get the chance to show the world what he could have accomplished next.

Girdler was a regional filmmaker (working out of Kentucky, I believe), and I always like to champion REAL indies, ones who continually work outside Hollywood and do their own thing in their own way. I also appreciate the cunning businessman that Girdler no doubt was. His films always ripped-off the right movie at the right time. Grizzly was a play-by-play re-enactment of Jaws, only with a bear. And Abby has always labored under the reputation of being a black Exorcist (an early, suggested title, according to the "About Abby" production notes on the DVD release, was The Blackorcist).
Cinefear has released a 30th anniversary DVD edition of Abby, a film long missing from the public eye, and back in the Spring, filmmaker and Cinefear maestro Keith Crocker gave me a copy as a gift. Because it's been one of those years, I hadn't gotten around to watching it until last night. (Although I did watch and enjoy Keith's own paean to the exploitation age of "fringe filmmaking" gone by, The Bloody Ape.) I was glad I got to see Abby now, in all of its B-movie glory.

The DVD edition from Cinefear includes the "About Abby" production notes (an interesting history about the film's background, and Warners' attempt to squash the film as unfair competition to The Exorcist...), and other extras including a theatrical trailer, a radio spot, a still gallery, and looks at lobby cards and posters. But all that is just icing on the cake compared to the joy of seeing again an authentic Girdler horror film that, for years, has been widely unavailable.

Abby tells the story of a nice young African-American woman named, of course, Abby (Carol Speed). She is married to a pastor named Emmett (Terry Carter; Colonel Tigh of the original Battlestar Galactica), and when the action starts, they are just moving into their new house. Abby works with the youth choir, doesn't drink, and just got a certificate to counsel couples planning to be married....she's an outstanding example of a committed, caring, 1970s American. But Emmett's father-in-law is Dr. Williams (played by the great Blacula himself, William Marshall), an archaeologist/priest who is an expert in ancient Nigerian religion. At an excavation site in Africa, he unearths a ceremonial vessel (decorated with an "erect penis," a totem to the "trickster" God named Eshu...a Nigerian Sex Demon.) Before you can say Father Merrin and spit up pea soup, Eshu is released from his prison and sets about possessing poor Abby back in the States.

This lovable, kind woman suddenly goes stark raving mad. She cuts herself with a kitchen knife while preparing dinner. She gags uncontrollably in church after singing in the choir. She kicks Emmett in the balls when he comes onto her in the marital bed (by quoting the Bible, of all things...). And when a prospective bride and groom arrive in the new house for counseling from the pastor's wife, Abby rips open her blouse and - in graphic language - offers to take the bride-groom out for a test spin, desiring to take him upstairs and "f%$k the shit out of him." Abby also tortures a church organist and eventually kills her, and now it is time for Emmett, Abby's brother, Cass (played by Austin Stoker, of Assault on Precinct 13 fame...) and Dr. Williams to exorcise the Nigerian demon. But first they have to find Abby. She has thrown off her wedding ring, escaped the house, and headed off to frequent the nightclub scene, where the newly-promiscuous woman can pick a new round of victims...

"Abby doesn't need a man anymore. The Devil is her lover now!" shouted the ad-lines for Girdler's production. "A woman loved and in love until that night...when something evil was looking for a soul to possess...was this Abby?" teased the trailer. And audiences responded by coming out to the movie in droves, at least until the movie disappeared from theaters. And although the film adheres rather rigidly to the outline put forth by The Exorcist, it also has its own unique world view and perspective. My verdict: If you like 1970s horror films, you'll find a lot to enjoy here. If you like William Girdler, you'll be in heaven...

The Exorcist focused on the idea of good and evil as real forces in this world, and the chosen battlefield was an innocent child, representing the future and all our tomorrows. Abby plays a different game, to interesting effect. Unlike Linda Blair's Regan, Abby is, after all, an adult woman. She's an upstanding member of her community and a model citizen...but, the movie asks us...how well do we really know her? How well does her husband really know her? Her brother? Her Mother? Is it possible that she could could - gasp - harbor sexual desires outside marriage? Or heck, is she possessed by an "erotically-charged" Nigerian demon? The fear being evidenced here is that of a woman's sexual freedom; her ability to be "receptive," let's say to "penetration" (either male or demonic...). I think that territory alone sets the film apart from The Exorcist, even if demonic possession is again the avenue for the subtext. Ultimately, the film sees Christianity as the balm over the rampant sexuality presented by Eshu, so there's that to consider too: Righteous/Western religious (dare I say Puritan?) values triumphing over the more expressive, free-wheeling nature of Paganism. Christianity has long been held to be patriarchal, to encourage a woman to be chaste, and now we see why! Eshu - the movie's gateway to non-traditional Western thought - just doesn't limit a woman that way. In Abby, the Christian order is restored, and Abby is exorcised; brought back in line to be the good wife, the good Christian, one who doesn't express her sexuality (or desires...) in ways our society finds inappropriate.

I can't really go on and on about how artistic a film Abby is. Because it isn't. Not really. Rather, it is a fun disco-decade movie, with a few flourishes of intelligence and wit here and there. Stylistically, the movie has its moments. There is a nice freeze frame and fade out of Abby's writhing face as she is atop one of her victims, when she is at her most vile and evil, and that is an image that resonates; as though she is trapped forever in that position. But more than technique, Girdler depends on shock value here...on sweet little Abby blurting out the most horrible remarks and comments (almost all related to sex). There is little of Girdler's more absurd side here (remember Leslie Nielsen wrestling a grizzly bear in Day of the Animals?), but his restraint in plotting works well in conjunction with the surprising blue streaks of dialogue.

One of these days, I would like to write - or see written - the ultimate William Girdler retrospective. In his canon, Abby stands far above Asylum of Satan and Grizzly, but I don't know if it can compare to the ultra-entertaining (and kinda funny...) later works, like Day of the Animals and The Manitou. But I do know one thing: I'm delighted that Cinefear has restored the film with loving care (including all the extras), and made the film available again. If you're interested in blaxploitation, William Girdler, and 1970s low-budget cinema, you can order Abby here.

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