The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #7

Abby's Lazarus Soul: William Girdler's Tale of Demon Posession in Search of a New Audience  

Jerry Veneman

“Abby doesn’t need a man; the devil is her lover now.”

Abby PosterIn the 1970s, a lot of “blaxploitation” movies—cheap exploitation films with all black casts—were being made. Many of them were quite good (Shaft, for example, or Blacula). Some of them were awful (Blackenstein, Hell up in Harlem). But none of them were as extravagant as William Girdler’s horror flick Abby.

An interesting blend of African spiritualism and demonic possession, Abby is the story of a minister’s wife possessed by an ancient African demon. Abby’s father-in-law, archaeologist bishop Dr. Williams (William Marshall) is in Nigeria, researching and documenting facets of the Yoruba religion. While excavating a network of caves, Williams comes across an ancient idol. In the process of excavating the site, he accidentally releases Eshu, god of sexuality, from a phallus-shaped box.

The demon finds its way from Nigeria to Louisville, Kentucky, the home of Emmet and Abby Williams (Terry Carter and Carol Speed). There Eshu “invades” Abby in a evocative shower scene—Abby finds herself unexpectedly aroused while Eshu hovers unbeknownst to our heroine, spiritually claiming her for himself. Weird things start to happen from that point on: doors are slamming, a cold wind is blowing inside the house, and, most importantly, the good minister’s wife is developing a growing appetite for sex. Her behavior is getting more unpredictable every day. While preparing food for a church picnic (one of many fried chicken dinners that take place during the film), she becomes so obsessed with the chicken’s blood that she attacks her own arm with a cooking knife and eventually passes out.

Abby: A Woman PossessedSoon Abby seems to be back to her old self. She even starts doing “good works” as the minister’s wife. All is not well, however. In one hysterical scene (my favorite), Abby’s giving pre-marriage counselling to a young couple. What starts as a minister’s wife giving good advice to the happy couple takes a turn for the worst when Eshu takes over and gives his take on marital relations when he says: “I have a few special tips for Sue. All men are not created equal—better make sure what he’s got first.” This line (and the horrified look on the young couple’s faces) still makes me laugh just thinking about it. Later, things really get out of hand when she attacks poor Mrs. Wiggins, the white church organist who has come to visit, yelling obscenities at her while objects in the room start to tremble. When the television suddenly explodes, Mrs. Wiggins can’t take it anymore and dies of a heart attack.

Abby’s husband and her brother, Cass (Austin Stoker), become concerned about her erratic and strange behavior. Emmet calls his father, Dr. Williams, who takes the first plane from Nigeria in order to help his daughter-in-law. Abby is taken to the hospital to undergo some medical testing. It doesn’t take very long before she escapes from the hospital, a sexual predator in search of prey. Roaming the streets of Louisville, she ends up in Wendell’s, undoubtedly one of the funkiest bars in movie history. Emmet, Cass and Dr. Williams drive from club to club until they arrive at Wendell’s. Here it comes to a final showdown between Dr. Williams and the demon Eshu in a spectacular over-the-top, disco exorcism. While the levitation scene may have been borrowed from The Exorcist, the exploding disco ball and jukebox are definitely one-of-a-kind originals!

Abby was directed by William Girdler (Day of the Animals, The Manitou) and released in 1974, only one year after The Exorcist. The similarities between the two movies are obvious. Girdler said it himself in an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal: “Sure, ” Girdler is quoted as saying, “We made Abby come in on the shirttail of The Exorcist.”

Help Abby!But Abby is not just an Exorcist rip-off. The movie has too much going for it. And it’s much better then recent movies like Lost Souls or Stigmata. First of all, the cast is superb, especially Juanita Moore (who played Annie Johnson in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life) as Abby’s mother and William Marshall (veteran stage actor who also starred as Prince Manuwalde in Blacula) are great. But this is Carol Speed’s movie. Speed, the star of other blaxploitation classics such as The Mack and The Big Birdcage, shines as the tortured soul, Abby, and she gives you the creeps as soon as Eshu takes over. Speed really loved playing Abby, and it shows.

Abby gave me the chance to play three different characters: an educated Baptist minister’s wife, a liberated sex-craving woman, and an egotistical demon.” She even sings a song called “My soul is a witness,” which she wrote herself. Then there’s the unusual sense of humor in this movie. It obviously doesn’t take itself too seriously. Juanita Moore’s advice on how to love a good man is really funny. Even the constant use of fried chicken in every meal they eat becomes a running joke. When Abby cuts her arm while cutting the chicken you wonder if Eshu is taking over, or if she finally just snapped from eating the same food every day.

Like most black movies from the ’70s this one also has a funky soundtrack by Robert O. Ragland, and a great theme song “Will we find our tomorrows?” by Patti Henderson.

AbbyThe audience also noticed that this was more than just an Exorcist copy. Made for only $500,000 Abby grossed nearly $9 million in its first (and final) month in the theatres. After Abby’s initial success, Warner Bros sued William Girdler and AIP for copyright infringement. (They also sued movies like Chi Sei and House of Exorcism for having similar themes). The profits from the movie were frozen and Abby was pulled from theaters.

William Peter Blatty, author of the novel The Exorcist, was against the lawsuit. In one interview, Blatty said, “I visited the set of Abby. Director William Girdler was just trying to make a different version of The Exorcist and I had no problem with that. I actually liked Abby.” He refused to act against Abby when Warner sued and, to this day, still disagrees with the action.

One of the people disappointed with Abby was, ironically, William Marshall. He didn’t like the fact that it didn’t delve far enough into African culture. (He lectured on the Yoruba religion at several universities during the ’70s.) They also promised him script improvements that never happened. Nevertheless, his discontent doesn’t show in the movie. His performance is great.

In 1978 the lawsuit was settled and the frozen revenue generated by the movie was released to Girdler and AIP on the condition that Abby wasn’t re-released in the cinemas again. William Girdler never saw a dime. He died two weeks later, aged 30, in a helicopter crash.

Abby was never issued on video. It’s only been available on bootleg copies. Celluloid prints still exist, and a decent copy can still be made. A new generation of movie-lovers is rediscovering this hidden gem. It seems that it’s just a matter of time before Abby gets the release on video or DVD deserves.

Like Speed says: “Abby has a Lazarus soul.” She’s bound to be resurrected again for a new audience.

* * *

Special thanks to Carol Speed and Patty Breen. Sign the petition for the re-release of Abby! For more info on Abby, William Girdler and Carol Speed visit the William Girdler Web site. Copies of Abby are available at Cinefear.

* * *

Jerry Veneman is thirty years old, lives in the Netherlands, and studies photography. He and his wife Karin are expecting their first child in October.

Copyright © 2002 by the author. All rights reserved.