Written by: William Girdler (story), Gordon Cornell Layne (screenplay)
Directed by: William Girdler
Starring: Carol Speed, William Marshall, and Terry Carter
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Shit, you ain't got enough to satisfy me, you impotent son of a bitch!"
When The Exorcist was released in 1973, it was a flashpoint in more ways than one. Not only did it cement William Friekdin’s place as a master director, but it firmly established that 70s cinema would belong to Satan. The Dark Lord would reign supreme over the decade, featuring in several productions inspired by the success of The Exorcist. Most notable (or infamous) among these films are the shameless rip-offs that emerged, with upstart Louisville filmmaker crossing the finish line first in America* with Abby. Arriving just one year later, on Christmas Day 1974, Abby created an immediate stir that attracted the attention of Warner Brothers, who successfully filed an injunction against the film and pulled it from circulation (but not before it made $4 million). It’s a truly amazing chapter in exploitation lore, if only because it creates the impression that Girdler’s film was some instance of beyond-the-pale plagiarism, when, in reality, Abby is really no less a blatant rip-off than other films (like Beyond the Door) that secured American distribution.
In fact, it’s arguably one of the era’s more inspired rip-offs. Not content to simply rehash The Exorcist, Girdler splices it with the DNA of the Blaxploitation pictures that American International had found success with. It’s the tale of Dr. Garrett Williams (William Marshall), a theologist researching the Yoruba religion who unwittingly unleashes Eshu, a malicious spirit during an excursion to Nigeria. A god that sews chaos and perversion, Eshu doesn’t target Williams directly; instead, he whisks halfway around the world to Louisville, where the professor’s son Emmett (Terry Carter) and his wife Abby (Carol Speed) have just moved into a new home. The couple is a pillar of their community: Emmett is a beloved preacher, while Abby sings in the choir and serves as a marriage counselor. It’s utterly shocking, then, when Abby suddenly becomes a foul-mouthed, lascivious harlot who tries to seduce every man she encounters.
That’s pretty much the gist of Abby, a film that’s obviously lacking the pedigree and resources of the film that inspired it. Like so many of its rip-off contemporaries, it distills The Exorcist’s existential dread into pure schlock, leaning on cheap effects and blasphemous dialogue to shock rather than outright horrify. It’s a short cut approach that doesn’t quite grasp what made Friedkin’s film so effective and oppressive. But this isn’t so much a criticism so much as a statement of fact, and if anyone could ever get away with such an approach, it’d be Girdler. No stranger to this sort of thing, he’d already directed Asylum of Satan (a Rosemary’s Baby riff that even included that film’s devil suit) as his first feature, and he was well on his way to becoming one of the era’s purveyors of unrepentant schlock. Abby particularly cemented his place as an exploitation master who specialized in capitalizing on popular titles and trends, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a total blast that thrives on pure momentum because Girdler never allows for a slack moment once Abby becomes possessed.
It helps that Speed—who was a last-minute replacement for another actress who demanded an on-set masseuse—is totally game for the story’s wild twists and turns. She throws herself into the title role with reckless abandon, fully committing to both ends of its spectrum. As the preacher’s wife, she’s demure and wholesome, totally the type of lady who doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in her body. As Eshu’s victim, she spits the kind of profanity that’ll make even the most seasoned exploitation fan blush. Most of it is sexual in nature, like when she tells her husband she’s going to take another man upstairs and “fuck the shit out of him.” Speed—with the help of some great make-up work—is capable of switching gears from shot-to-shot, transforming on a dime to startling effect. There’s really no topping the transformation Linda Blair made, nor is it really possible to top the profane corruption of a child, so Girdler has Speed lean into her own metamorphosis, allowing her to go big and broad while leaning on the demonic voiceover that takes Abby to another plane of existence. The slapdash dubbing creates an uncanny effect that’s more amusing than it is unsettling. Most importantly, though, it’s wildly entertaining.
None of this should be surprising considering Girdler was one of those guys who didn’t let meager budgets hamper his grandiose vision. Few filmmakers have ever done so much with so little, and Abby takes a threadbare premise (Exorcist but make it Blaxploitation) and sprints with it, injecting the familiar proceedings with an almost madcap sensibility. He might not invest in the drama and the gravitas of corrupted innocence like Friedkin did, but he does stage hospital escapes and a cross-city manhunt when Abby goes full demonic, trawling bars for any man that will give her attention. And it turns out none of them can, much to the dismay of both Emmett and Abby’s brother (Austin Stoker), a detective who begins as a skeptic but must confront the truth when his sister is writhing on a floor, growling and hissing profanities.
Because it’s 40 minutes shorter than The Exorcist, Abby quickly and frequently indulges in “the good stuff”: the demonic vomiting, the twisted sexuality (realized in this case not with crucifix masturbation but the shadow of a demon engulfing Abby in the shower in a rare show of restraint), and, of course, the exorcism itself. If there’s any sequence that exactly captures Abby’s vibe, it’s the climax, which switches out the moody, ethereal showdown between good and evil in an intimate, domestic setting for William Marshall exchanging pleasantries with a demon in a grungy Louisville bar. Girdler transforms the terse, biting exchanges from The Exorcist into a full-on shouting match between priest and devil, who spend much of the exorcism jawing at each other before the chintzy special effects take over.
Abby was Girdler’s fourth film, but it’s the one that catapulted him from being a regional shitkicker to the type of reliable schlock master that independent investors trusted to helm their low-rent exploitation take-offs. It’s not hard to see why: no, Abby didn’t exactly have a chance at matching anything The Exorcist could do, but Girdler knew that and leaned into it. In doing so, he made his own thing, which became the paradoxical hallmark of his short career: even though he was often riffing on familiar titles or genres, they all thrived on certain idiosyncrasies—these films were distinctly his, mostly because his devil-may-care approach is evident in each frame. Pretty much every Girdler production feels like a spitballing session that got captured on film because there’s a breathlessness to the action and plot development that’s infectious and exuberant. These films are simply fun, and Abby is no exception, thanks to Girdler’s rambunctious direction and a killer cast of Blaxploitation luminaries. Marshall reportedly was unhappy with the final script (which he didn’t think featured enough of his input), but you’d never know it given his charismatic presence in the few scenes he’s in. He did successfully lobby for the inclusion of the Nigerian mythos that gives the film a lot of its personality: this isn’t just a slipshod rehash of The Exorcist’s Judeo-Christian boogeymen but rather an African mythology that opens the door to subtexts regarding identity and colonialism.
Some might argue that a better film would fully explore such subtexts, but Abby isn’t that movie by design. Girdler knew exactly what he was up to and embraced the opportunity to cash in on The Exorcist. For evidence of his success, look no further than Warner’s litigious response: if the goal was sheer exploitation, then garnering that kind of attention has to be the endgame. Unfortunately, with such attention came the injunction that robbed Girdler and company of any financial success, a fate that remains true. To this day, it remains scarce: some 16mm prints exist, and you can find bootlegged DVDs floating around any self-respecting horror convention. An official release remains unlikely, and it’s as bogus now as it was 40 years ago, when a slew of other Exorcist rip-offs came and went without issue. Abby’s fate is a cruel irony considering it’s one of the more unique efforts from this free-for-all, and Warner keeping it under lock-and-key over 40 years later feels petty at this point. I don’t think their billion-dollar IP will be in any way threatened by an official release of Abby; if anything, I have to imagine it would generate goodwill for them to finally clear a path for it. Girdler and crew deserve as much: not only is Abby one of the more interesting pieces of the 70s Satanic puzzle, but it’s an interesting chapter in Blaxploitation lore that shouldn’t be stuck in undeserved obscurity.
*The Antichrist beat it by a month over in Italy and eventually released in America by AVCO Embassy with no apparent issues—despite also being a blatant rip-off of The Exorcist.
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