Most ‘lost films’ get lost through carelessness. London After Midnight vanished because in the 1930s MGM assumed there was no value in keeping prints of their silent films; they had a talkie remake of this title, Mark of the Vampire, and could not conceive of a future in which anyone would want to see the older Lon Chaney film rather than a brand-spanking new Bela Lugosi picture. More interesting are pictures which are not so much lost as deliberately suppressed. The grand-daddy in this category is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which prompted Mrs Bram Stoker – who may well never even have read her husband’s most famous novel but tried to make a living off it for thirty years – to sue for copyright violation. Courts ordered the film destroyed, but pirates (and the official rights-holders, Universal) saved one or two copies; ironically, the estate of R.L. Stevenson didn’t sue over Der Januskopf, Murnau’s equally unauthorised Jekyll & Hyde adaptation, but that has tragically not survived. Nuisance lawsuits are a feature of Hollywood, and almost all successful films bring out a bunch of people who claim to have had the same idea years earlier and, moreover, to have told Steven Speilberg that a film about a cute alien who befriends a kid would be a good idea. Val Lewton’s well-noted inability to play studio politics, rather than any merit in the suit, meant RKO gave in when Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner alleged his 1943 production The Ghost Ship plagiarised an original scenario of theirs. The film, a real gem, was inaccessible for nearly fifty years, and Golding and Faulkner were presumably content with their sole screen credits – original stories for Buccaneer’s Girl (1950) and Lady With Red Hair (1940). It seems obvious that The Ghost Ship was more likely to have been inspired by Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf (in which the ship is called the Ghost) than any spec script.
Abby was directed by William Girdler, who began his career with Kentucky-shot obscurities Three on a Meathook (1972) and Asylum of Satan (1975) but would rise to more mainstream B movies Day of the Animals (1977) and The Manitou (1978) before his premature death in a helicopter accident in 1978. With Abby, Girdler successfully cashed in on two trends of the day – the black exploitation picture and the Satanic possession movie – and scored a release through Samuel Z. Arkoff’s AIP outfit. Cigar-chomping lawyer Arkoff guessed the film had already scooped in all its profits when a Warner Brothers lawsuit thumped on his desk alleging Abby was arrant plagiarism of The Exorcist, and quietly buried the picture.
On one level, Warners were right: Abby is The Exorcist done black, just as AIP’s Blacula is Dracula done black and Dr Black and Mr Hyde is Jekyll & Hyde done black. Allegedly, Arkoff even wanted to call it The Blaxorcist. However, when considered among the mid-1970s glut of exorcism pictures, Girdler’s effort doesn’t seem that much more of a ripoff than The Devil Within Her (the one with Juliet Mills), Naked Exorcism, The Sexorcist, Paul Naschy’s Exorcismo or any one of a dozen others. And when it comes to turning out trashy rip-offs of The Exorcist, Warners haven’t been reluctant to debase their property by greenlighting and then recutting sequels for decades. Furthermore, for all its based-on-a-true-story credentials, William Peter Blatty’s novel (and thus William Friedkin’s film) seems to owe a lot to Ray Russell’s 1963 novel The Case Against Satan – and that’s without even mentioning the often-produced and filmed Yiddish play The Dybbuk. Still, as with the Turkish Exorcist copy Seytan, much of the fun of Abby comes from seeing elements from the big-budget, ‘respectable’ Warners film transposed into a trashier milieu and a different culture.
Before the belabouring of Fr. Merrin’s African experiences in Exorcists II and IV, Abby deals with a wicked Nigerian God rather than a Christian demon. It opens with check-jacketed Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall, a black horror fixture since Blacula but well-cast here) leaving his happy students in America to take a trip through African stock footage and participate in an archaeological dig. The Bishop unearths an ancient casket, which he opens by twisting the erect penis on the carving, releasing a nasty African afrit named Eshu. Back home, Eshu possesses Abby Williams (Carol Speed), the Bishop’s hymn-singing daughter-in-law, and turns her from modest, church-going social worker into a snarling, rampant slut. Though we know she’s got the Devil in her because she masturbates in the shower (no godly girl would do that!), her funniest early misdeed is to finish a marriage counselling session with a nice, well-behaved young couple by threatening to drag the husband upstairs and fuck his brains out. The Reverend Williams (Terry Carter), the Bishop’s son, gets over his ill-defined resentment of his high-flying Dad and makes a couple of international phone calls to explain the trouble, whereupon the Bishop flies home to perform the mandatory exorcism. Though there are bits loosely inspired by The Exorcist, as when Abby badgers a visitor into a heart attack by knowing about her personal secrets, the shape of the story is different. Blatty and Friedkin tie Regan to the bed and have the priests do their work in her bedroom – Girdler lets Abby go free, more like a femme Hyde than a traditional possessee, to trawl through low bars for guys (she finds a meek, bespectacled deacon and does him in with an indefinable burst of smoke or steam in the back of his car) and toss sharp-dressed black dudes around like mannequins.
As in most black-themed horror films, an almost interesting idea about ethnicity is poorly handled. Pre-possession, Abby dresses all in white and acts so respectably that radical African-Americans might accuse her of selling out to White Amerikka (her cake-baking mother is even played by Juanita Moore, the archetypal self-sacrificing housekeeper from Imitation of Life). When an African spirit takes up residence, the soul sister becomes a gross racial caricature – wild-haired, foul-mouthed, promiscuous, violent, but also sexy, self-assured, stylish and (crucially for the genre) jive-talking. This is too timid (and white-directed) a film to suggest Abby might be liberated as much as oppressed by Eshu, but you have to wonder whether the audience for black exploitation films might not prefer the possessed harpie to the church social organiser. It’s less blatant in its scrambling of black identities than the Oreo sell-outs who transform into Stack O’Lee-type killer pimps in Dr Black and Mr Hyde and J.D.’s Revenge, but lacks the subtleties of the only really sincere black-themed horror film of the era, Ganja and Hess – which also pits African-American Gospel-singing Christianity against African tribal superstition, in a much more interesting manner.
Friedkin stages the exorcism as a private, bedroom ritual; Girdler does his like a bar-fight in a disco with Abby pinned down by her husband and brother (cop Austin Stoker) as the Bishop waves a crucifix at her, almost like a black Klansman, and intones hollow nonsense with the utmost sincerity and ringing voice. Friedkin uses a few tiny subliminal cuts, but Girdler gives us longer glimpses at Speed made up as an African mask-faced Eshu. In the end, the demon gets his ass kicked and has to lay off the preacher’s woman – so that’s all right then. For your money, you also get the expected mediocre soul score, eye-abusing art direction and costuming (it was the ‘70s, after all) and on-the-streets wandering. Arkoff’s decision not to contest the suit too hard was understandable: video was not yet a viable medium, and both the black action and peasoup vomit crazes were burned out, so Abby wasn’t likely to bring in any more coin. Al Adamson, even lower on the food chain than Girdler, had to throw in another exploitation sub-genre staple (the nurse movie) when he made Nurse Sherri (1977) – a film which manages to be about a black sexpot nurse who gets possessed and still be resolutely unexciting.
Girdler didn’t learn the lesson; his next big project was Grizzly (1976), a Jaws imitation which substitutes a bear for a shark but is otherwise such a carbon copy that the same girl (Susan Backline, trivia fans) gets chomped in the first scene. This time he was lucky, Universal opted to sue the Italian Great White instead.