In Shock Value, author Jason Zinoman discusses the fact that The Exorcist was surprisingly popular with black audiences in 1973, so it was only natural that a blaxploitation follow up would appear relatively quickly. Appearing on screens for only a month in 1974, Abby, written and directed by William Girdler (who had previously scripted and helmed cult classics like Three on a Meathook and Asylum of Satan, and who would go on to direct Pam Grier in Sheba, Baby), raked in an astonishing four million dollars before attracting the attention of Warner Brothers. WB sued American International Pictures for copyright infringement and won, leading to virtually every extant copy of the film to be destroyed, with only the film negatives thought to still exist. Until a long-forgotten copy of the film was discovered at the bottom of a box of 35 mm trailer reels at the American Genre Film Archive, that is. It’s unclear what will happen with the film now and whether it will see a new home media release (a very low quality 16 mm print was converted for DVD release in 2004, but it’s just awful), but it definitely deserves one.
The narrative opens on Reverend Emmett Williams (Terry Carter), who is going to Nigeria to perform missionary and humanitarian work during a plague. On the other side of the world, his son Garnet (William Marshall) has ascended to the rank of Bishop and taken charge of a church in Louisville, with his faithful wife Abby (Carol Speed) at his side. She, too, is active in the church, having just been certified as a marriage counselor and organizing church activities seven days a week. The two have just moved into a new home near the church, with help from Abby’s mother “Momma” (Juanita Moore) and brother Cass, a police detective. When the elder Williams opens an ebony box in Nigeria and unleashes an evil orisha spirit named Eshu, Abby becomes possessed by it and begins behaving in bizarre and dangerous ways, prompting her loved ones to try and find a way to save her, body and soul, before it’s too late.
For all that Warner Brothers did to bury Abby, they certainly had no issue taking some elements from it when drafting a script for The Exorcist 2, including the connection to ancient African myths and legends. That aside, Abby is marvelous, aside from a little bit of drag in Act III. Speed’s performance as Abby is heart-wrenching, as she struggles to make sense of the actions taken while possessed during her moments of clarity. Of particular note is the scene that follows her first episode, in which Eshu forces her to slice her wrist; Abby awakes to find her wrist bandaged and her baffled cries and moans are enough to stir even the hardest of hearts. Speed, who had recently lost her lover to a random shooting in the street outside of their home, took the role to distract herself from the tragedy, and she pours that emotional vulnerability and intensity into every scene. Also of interest is the fact that Eshu is not solely expelled through the power of Catholic exorcist intervention, but by the elder Williams donning a dashiki and kufi hat over his priestly collar, combining western Catholic tradition and ancient African mythology to solve the crisis at hand. It’s a thoughtful way to handle the film’s denouement, and serves to differentiate it from many of the run-of-the-mill Exorcist clones that followed William Friedkin’s more famous film.
Tracking down a decent copy of Abby may be no small feat, but it is highly recommended.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond