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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Abby’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, in order to see the gems, you have to look beyond the devil in the details…

Abby (1974)
Distributed by: American International Pictures
Directed by: William Girdler

In 1973, there was the devil to pay in Hollywood:

The Exorcist was not just the top box office draw for 1973 ($193 million, equivalent to $1.36 billion in today’s dollars), it was a major cultural touchstone. The subject of demonic possession and the devil’s influence on us became the basis for many a conversation and thought piece, which during the trying times of Watergate and the first OPEC oil embargo found fertile ground.

And, where there’s a hot trend, there usually follows someone trying to grab onto its coattails…

Please note that there will be some spoilers in this piece.

We get a cold opening with an overhead shot of a park in Louisville, KY, under the American International logo, before the camera pans down to a going away picnic given in honor of Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall). The bishop is on his way to Nigeria, where in addition to providing relief from floods, he intends to go on a few archeological digs.

The discussion at the party feels like an info-dump about Bishop Williams, who we learn has doctorate degrees in theology and archeology, as well as about his field of study. It comes out in discussion with his students, none of whom show up again in the film after this scene, that Williams’ main field of study is the Yoruba religion, and in particular the cult of Eshu. We get to hear a lot about Eshu from the kids, much of which contradicts what we know in reality, but the Bishop entertains their notions before the credits start up.

After the credits accompany some stock footage of Nigeria, we find ourselves deep in a cave where Bishop Williams finds a piece of ebony with old coverings on it. He declares that the wood is over a thousand years old, which is amazing in that trees and branches tend to decompose entirely in about one hundred, but ANY-ways…

Of course, the fact that it’s a cursed item may have something to do with its longevity. Bishop Williams finds a little latch, and the dust in the compartment inside the piece blows away, with winds strong enough to knock down everyone at the dig site.

We then switch quickly back to Louisville, where we watch Bishop Williams’ son, the Reverend Emmet Williams (Terry Carter) and his wife Abby (Carol Speed) move into their new home. Along with Abby’s brother Cass (Austin Stoker) the police detective and mama Miranda (Juanita Moore), the young couple take possession of the house and get in a little more info-dumping to help set up for us where we’re going…

Speaking of “possession…” soon after moving in, Abby feels a strange presence around her, one which manifests while she does the laundry, with extreme winds and flashes of a threatening face:

After that, things get a little weirder, as does Abby herself. Glasses break at the table without cause, Abby mutilates herself in a way that looks like an accident, and after Abby performs a solo in the choir (singing “Is Your Soul a Witness?” which was composed by Carter herself) she attacks the organist (Nathan Cook). It soon escalates when Abby flips a switch at random and says horrible hurtful things in a deeper voice (provided by Bob Holt) with her face making menacing contortions:

Desperate, Emmet turns to the latest in modern medicine for an answer, placing Abby in the hospital, while reaching out to his father. Concerned for his daughter-in-law, Bishop Williams takes the first plane back, and is surprised along with Emmet when Abby is at home to great them, having made a violent chaotic break out. She’s sweet to both of them just long enough for her to find the best moment to strike…

After the disastrous homecoming, Abby flees into the night, ultimately ending up at a funky night spot. While Emmet and Cass search for her, Bishop Williams takes a few moments to ready himself for the battle with Eshu for Abby’s body and soul…

Which makes one ask: Why? Why did Eshu, on release from his prison, go all the way to Louisville to possess someone his ‘liberator’ cared for, as opposed to just possessing him? How did something asleep for a millennium figure out who to go after, on first sight, without wondering where Louisville was?

Is it because this possessor wasn’t Eshu? The way the Bishop and the demon argue as the ritual goes on, it’s not entirely clear who’s inside whom or who was who they said they were. Among the folks unhappy with the script was Marshall, who asked for but didn’t get revisions to the screenplay, leaving him with nothing nice to say about when asked about the production later.

While there are some obvious problems with the screenplay, props are due it for being willing to give us the struggle between good and evil without relying on a Euro-Christian cosmology. With Eshu coming out of the Yoruba tradition, it would make more sense that the ceremony used to banish the demon would likewise be derived from the Yoruba’s practices. If nothing else, it’s laudable that the film tried to make an effort at representation, badly executed as it was.

The script’s issues are such that nothing could be done to overcome them. Gridler’s direction is serviceable but uninspiring, which on a script that needed a deft hand at the helm did it no favors. The cast does what it can with the lines they were given, with Marshall and Speed getting the best results as they fight the central battle with vigor, but there’s not a lot for anyone else to do here.

The movie would be remembered as one of the worst pictures ever made, with no one able to come forward to look at it with fresh eyes. Before bad box office could sink the film, though, it was pulled from distribution by AI after two weeks, when Warner Brothers threatened litigation for ripping off The Exorcist. After that, ownership of Abby fell into dispute, keeping the movie from being distributed on later platforms. It would not see home video distribution until 2006, working off of a poor print; there are some assumptions that Warner Brothers seized all prints of the film as part of their actions against the movie.

Which shows a hell of an effort by them to possess the Devil for themselves…

 

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