When Abby was released on December 25th, 1974, it should have hit the cinemas, stayed around for a few months, and then disappeared into the ether before finding a revival at the start of the ’80s when VHS became the place for all horror aficionados to go to seek out old forgotten movies. ‘Should have’ being the operative two words here. Instead, Abby saw the light of day and made a nice chunk of change before it found itself tangled up in a legal battle between its distributor American International Pictures and the might of Warner Brothers.
This was all down to the fact that the WB took one look at Abby and accused AIP of ripping off their massive hit, The Exorcist, which had been released to critical and financial success almost a year to the day prior to Abby crawling out of her own pit of Hades. Warner Brothers saw the William Girdler produced and directed story of possession and cried foul. They claimed that Abby was nothing more than a reworking of The Exorcist and that it was a plagiarism of the highest order. In fact, they were so confident in this belief that they took AIP to court, and they won.
The verdict in Warner Brothers’ favor—along with the fact that for many years there was an ongoing argument over who actually owned the rights to the film—meant that Abby was pulled from circulation and disappeared into the void, alongside the likes of Nosferatu, A Clockwork Orange, and the original 1932 Scarface.
This made Abby an almost impossible film to track down until the likes of YouTube came along and allowed people to upload their less-than-stellar copies. Yet with Abby now being easier to access—though still as rare as unicorn poop if you don’t know where to look—the question remains, does all the controversy surrounding Abby make it worth 89 minutes of your life, or would you be better off spending your time doing something else like filleting your cat?
Well, dear reader, let’s find out, shall we?
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead For A Nearly 50-Year-Old Movie
The movie starts with Dr. Garret Williams, a priest, played by the always brilliant William H. Marshall, enjoying a picnic with a few of his students. He explains to them that they’ll be having a substitute teacher for their final exams, which leads one of his young nubile students to look straight into the camera and utter the immortal line, and I kid you not;
No substitute for you Dr. Williams. You’re the real thing.
Straight off the bat, Abby sets out its stall. This is going to be a hip film. This is going to be a cool film. This is going to be one of the few Blaxploitation horrors made and it’s going to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible as soon as it can. Okay, that probably wasn’t the idea with that line, but considering just how young the character delivering it was, and the fact that she was saying it in a nudge-nudge wink-wink kind of way to a man old enough to be her grandad—even if that man happened to be William H. Marshall—is cringeworthy as hell. But in a good kind of way, if that makes any sense? Almost as if writer G. Cornell Layne knew just what he was doing, and nearly all signs point to the fact that he did.
One of the biggest complaints that Warner Brothers had with Abby was that the protagonists in both this film and The Exorcist were possessed by demons, and in that, they had a point, but outside of those two similarities, Layne made sure they had nothing in common. In The Exorcist, Regan MacNeil had her body taken over by The Devil, whereas here Abby Williams is inhabited by Eshu, a West African spirit of whirlwinds and chaos. But if that wasn’t enough of a difference for people, G. Cornell Layne decided that Eshu was also a sex demon. And no, I don’t mean that Eshu hung around in bars, boasting to anyone who would listen about his bedroom gymnastics.
It turns out that the reason that Dr. Garret Williams won’t be there to see his pupils take the most important test of their young lives is that he’s a terrible teacher, who couldn’t give a rat’s arse if they pass or fail. Alright, maybe not, but the fact that he’s decided that a trip to Nigeria on an archaeological dig to try to find the resting place of the God known as Eshu, is more important to him than hanging around a little longer to guide his prodigies through one of the most stressful times they’ll ever face, kind of makes me think he’s pretty crappy at his job and would rather be digging around for some moldy old bones than doing the job that he’s being paid for.
Another young nubile asks him just who this Eshu cat is, and he helpfully explains everything we need to know. He’s a Trickster God, a Creator Of Whirlwinds, a Master Of Chaos, and so forth and so on. This is useful as it means we don’t have to waste any more time on the plot and we can get straight on with the spooky stuff.
The next thing we know we’re in a cave in Nigeria, though in all honesty, it could’ve been any old hole in the ground as we never see outside the damn thing, and lo and behold if they haven’t found a small box with carvings on it. The Doc’s pretty sure that it’s what they were looking for as he explains the symbols on it are a whirlwind, a cock’s comb (which turns out to be far less rude than I thought it would after I looked it up on Google), and an erect penis. Because what box isn’t improved by having a huge dong doodled onto it? Being the inquisitive sod that he is he fiddles around with it for a bit (insert your own nob joke here) and finally it opens, allowing the spirit inside to escape. Well, at least he didn’t go blind.
A quick hop back to the USA and we’re introduced to his son Emmett Williams, played by Terry Carter, who is also a priest, and his wife Abby Williams, played by Carol Speed, who is a marriage counselor, youth program worker, and junior choir leader and yes they do make a point of telling you all of that. They’re moving into a new house and preparing to start a new life together and everything is just fine and groovy baby, or so you’d think. And if you do think that, I can only assume you’ve never watched any horror movie ever.
Later that night as The Williams lay asleep in bed the room starts going a little crazy. Doors slamming, things shaking (there are a lot of things shaking in this film), and general Demonic shenanigans. This wakes up Emmet but not Abby—who I can only assume must’ve been on horse tranquilizers as the spirit of Eshu isn’t messing about—who thinks, when she finally does come to, that Emmett just woke her cause he wanted some lovin’.
The next day she learns differently as, after a weird shower scene that I think is supposed to be erotic but is about as sexy as walking in on your nan as she tries on stockings and suspenders, she finds herself trapped in the basement and proceeds to get herself possessed whilst doing the laundry. Demons. No sense of timing.
From here on it’s all a bit downhill for Evil Abby. While fixing up chicken in the kitchen she starts cutting herself, then she has a major freak out in church, and in general, starts to bitch slapping the hell out of everyone she meets, Demon style. This behavior ends with her in hospital and poor old Emmett on the phone to Pop’s saying “Help, my wife’s a nutter!!!” The call works and William H. Marshall is on the first plane back home.
When he lands he decides it’s best to go to their house first instead of visiting Evil Abby in the looney bin, which is just as well because it gives Evil Abby enough time to break out of the hospital and head there after them. This leads to the first stand-off between Evil Abby and William H. which ends with more things shaking and Evil Abby having it away on her toes…er…cloven hoofs?…quite sharpish. Now they know she’s possessed but have no idea where to find her, but we do gentle reader. We just follow the cameraman.
In a random bar, we find Evil Abby picking up guys. Considering Carol Speed was incredibly cute it’s not that difficult. As soon as she does she takes them outside and literally humps them to death. This is all done very tastefully as all you ever see is a lot of dry ice. While Abby is on her doinkathon, her husband, her father-in-law, and her best friend are all still out searching for her, in hopes that they’ll be able to stop her rampage before she completes her quest to turn every man she meets into a cheap special effect.
When they do catch up with her, they’re met by a group of men who prove that where the male libido is concerned, the common sense gland is removed. Noticing Abby all alone in the bar, the conversation proceeds as follows;
Hey Clive, ain’t that the chick who left with Sam?
Yeah it is, anyone know where Sam went? No-bodies seen him for weeks.
No idea but I wanna hit some of that.
This exchange actually makes you want Abby to boink them to death, but before that can happen her husband rushes in to save the day. This goes really well and he doesn’t end up on the ass end of an ass whipping, no siree bob! *checks notes* Wait. Sorry. My mistake. The gentlemen in question proceed to beat him like a red-headed step-child, while his loving wife eggs them on before—for reasons known only to herself and the writer—she goes postal on everyone and clears the room.
With Evil Abby and Emmett face to face, the situation looks bleak for her soon-to-be lunch husband, until in walks William H. to lay the Holy Smackdown on the Demon. Which he does, but not before taking a pit stop to change into his finest Nigerian clobber. A quick exorcism later—and considering how quick an exorcism it actually is, I can only assume it was cut down due to runtime—and Abby is back to being the loving wife, marriage counselor, youth program worker, and junior choir leader we met at the beginning, while the Demon, who we find out may or may not have been Eshu all along—because plot twist—is vanquished to wherever you vanquish Demons. Pittsburgh probably.
I like Abby, and not just because I like terrible movies. Which this is. I like it because AIP managed to make $4 million dollars on it before it was pulled from the cinema, even though they’d only spent $100,000 making it. I like it because William H. Marshall hated the movie, due to promises being made to him that weren’t kept, yet he still puts in a powerhouse performance. I like it because Carol Speed seemed to decide that to garner interest in its release, she’d go around telling everyone the set had been cursed, which was later denied by Pat Kelly who was the manager of the film who said,
Nothing happened that would be considered unusual. Carol—and maybe a couple of others—were so hoping things would go strange, that they may have convinced themselves of a great evil over us—the tornadoes were the closest—but they hit 10 states, so it was not just Abby that had somebody up there awful mad!
But mostly, I like it because it is trash cinema at its best. The Blaxploitation genre doesn’t have a lot of horror movies dwelling within it—off the top of my head I can only think of Blacula, Scream Blacula Scream, and Blackenstein—as it was rooted deep within the social commentary of what was happening in Black America at the time. A vast majority of movies that were released under that flag focused solely on that aspect and nothing else, and while the Blaxploitation genre is undoubtedly one of my favorites to have ever existed, there are times it takes itself way too seriously. Abby is the polar opposite.
Abby knows what it is and doesn’t shy away from the fact. Is it scary? No, and I very much doubt it ever was. Are the special effects any good? Well, if you consider green face paint, milk pouring out of the lead actress’s mouth, and every piece of furniture being shaken to announce Eshu’s arrival to a scene as decent SFX, then yeah, I suppose you’d call it cutting-edge. Is the plot one that will keep you on the edge of your seat? Only if you’ve got a thing for possessed ladies trying to rumpy-pumpy people to death.
But what Abby lacks in quality writing and directorial genius—remember, William Girdler was responsible for such celluloid masterpieces as Three On A Meat Hook and Grizzly—it more than makes up for in sheer, unadulterated, stupid fun and after all that’s all we can hope for isn’t it? A good laugh before the whole sh*t-house goes up in flames? Eshu seemed to think so, and who am I to argue with a dodgy 1970s special effect?