Abby/Possess My Soul (1974) -***
It isn’t often that you get to see a movie that was actually sued out of the theater. (Although I myself seem to be doing an awful lot of that lately.) When American International released Blacula in 1972, aiming a horror movie directly at a black audience for the first time since the days of the “race pictures” in the 30’s and 40’s, it proved to be a shrewd marketing strategy. The cashing in began swiftly, with Scream, Blacula, Scream sharing the screen with Blackenstein the following year. The phenomenon amounted to little more than a blip on the radar, though, in part because the attention of most horror fans in 1973 was focused on a little movie called The Exorcist. Now far be it from Sam Arkoff to let a potentially lucrative trend pass him by, or to miss an opportunity to maximize his bang-for-buck ratios by piling several different exploitable elements into one movie, so it’s hardly a shock that when a blaxploitation Exorcist clone showed up in 1974, the AI logo was proudly displayed in the opening credits. Nor is it entirely surprising to find trash movie king William Girdler in the director’s chair. In fact, considering what an utterly shameless copy of The Exorcist this movie is, just about the only really surprising thing about Abby/Possess My Soul is that its creators somehow mustered the class not to title it The Blaxorcist.
You want to know how brazen a ripoff we’re talking about here? Well how about this: Abby begins with a priest about to leave the country on an archeological expedition! The priest in question is Dr. Garnet Williams (William Marshall, from Blacula and The Boston Strangler), and though one assumes that he’s African Methodist Episcopal rather than Roman Catholic, his demeanor and bearing would have me thinking about Max Von Sydow even if his introductory scene weren’t set up as an obviously conscious reference to Father Lancaster Merrin. Sure, he may be on his way to Nigeria instead of Iraq, and his field of expertise when it comes to pagan religion may be West African instead of Babylonian, but William Girdler isn’t fooling me. Anyway, while Williams and his colleagues are poking around in a cave, they find a wooden cylinder inscribed with the image of the African trickster god Eshu, who is apparently associated with both sex and whirlwinds. When Williams opens up the cylinder (by unscrewing Eshu’s erect cock— how cool is that?), a swirling current of air blasts out of it, tossing the men all over the inside of the cavern.
Meanwhile, Williams’s son, Everett (Terry Carter, of Foxy Brown and “Battlestar Galactica”), a man of the cloth himself, is moving into his new home in Louisville, Kentucky, with his new wife, Abby (Carol Speed, from The Big Bird Cage and Avenging Disco Godfather). As befits a preacher’s wife, Abby is a committed homemaker, is extremely active in the church, and is such an all-around goody-two-shoes that you just want to smack her upside the head and buy her some Portuguese horse porn. On their first night in the new place, Everett is awakened by a sudden and unexplained shaking of the house, accompanied by a fiercely gusting wind. And wouldn’t you know it, from that day forward, sweet little Abby begins to change.
The first thing she does is feel herself up in the shower. This scene would have been funny enough to begin with, but now, with those stupid-ass Herbal Essences commercials popping up on TV every 15 minutes, it rises to the plane of transcendent Phil Tucker hilarity. Then she starts making horny moaning noises while helping her mother (Juanita Moore, from The Mack and The Zebra Killer) chop up a couple of chickens for dinner. This second incident takes on a much more serious tone when Abby suddenly lifts up the carving knife she’d been using and gashes her forearm from wrist to elbow. And though her physical recovery is speedy enough, Abby shows signs of a massive personality shift during her convalescence. She becomes foul-mouthed, rude, and generally unpleasant, and brings up the topic of sex seemingly every time she opens her yap. The doctors from the hospital that treated her self-inflicted cut can find nothing physically wrong with her when Everett takes her back for a series of tests, however (note that the one test we get to see was also performed on Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist), and suggest that Abby ought perhaps to be seeing a psychiatrist instead. Finally, when Abby’s voice starts to change and when a neighbor has a mysterious fatal heart attack while visiting her in her sickroom, Everett grows worried enough to call his dad in Nigeria, and beg him to come home.
This, finally, is where Abby begins taking on a personality of its own, rather than slavishly following the plot of The Exorcist. Everett goes to meet his father at the airport, and when they return home, they find that Abby has let herself out of the hospital and beaten them there. The beating becomes literal a few minutes later, as the demon inside Abby (and it is now obvious to everyone but Everett and his brother-in-law, Cass Potter [Austin Stoker, of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Horror High], that demonic possession is Abby’s real problem) takes grave offense at Garnet Williams’s rejection of her sexual advances. After telekinetically wrecking the living room, Abby storms off, steals Garnet’s car, and heads downtown to have some fun. Garnet and Everett enlist Cass Potter’s aid, and the two younger men head off in pursuit of Abby while the elder steels himself for the supernatural combat he knows is sure to follow when they find her. Eventually, Abby turns up in a funk club, screwing her way through the male patrons. Potter’s badge and pistol empty the place out quite efficiently, and then Garnet arrives to perform an exorcism that looks a lot more like the one in The Eerie Midnight Horror Show than the more famous one from this movie’s primary model.
The exorcism scene isn’t the only thing about Abby that reminded me of The Eerie Midnight Horror Show— or for that matter, virtually every Italian Exorcist knockoff— either. The vast majority of the movies that directly copy The Exorcist (by which I mean to exclude films like The Omen or The Amityville Horror, which owe something to The Exorcist’s popularity, but don’t necessarily follow its lead on plot points) feature very prominently one thing which was almost entirely absent from the original: sex. Granted, plenty of reviewers have read that whole movie in sexual terms, interpreting Regan’s possession as symbolic of the onset of puberty, pointing especially to the scene in which the demoniac girl “masturbates” with a crucifix. To these critics I say, “bullshit.” Anyone who calls what Regan does with that crucifix in the infamous “Let Jesus fuck you!” scene “masturbation” obviously has no idea how a woman would go about pleasuring herself. Well here’s a hint: they sure as hell don’t extend their arms to full length above their heads and swing them down at maximum force into their crotches while clutching a narrow but blunt-ended strip of metal!!!! That sort of thing would be better described by the phrase “sexual self-mutilation,” and it seems pretty clear to me that Pazuzu makes Regan do it precisely because the sexual aspect of it makes it far more horrifying than any other form of equally damaging self-abuse. And since none of possessed Regan’s other behaviors (unless you count her exceptionally foul mouth) are even remotely sexual, the entire notion of The Exorcist as puberty parable falls apart once the crucifuck scene is recognized for what it is. In Abby and the similar films that followed in The Exorcist’s wake, on the other hand, it’s an entirely different story. Apparently looking at Regan and her crucifix the same way as the reviewers, the makers of these movies took the sex ball and ran with it. Here, most of Abby’s manifestations of possession are of a sexual nature, and in fact, the being that possesses her is initially identified as an African sex deity. (Although interestingly enough, a question later arises over whether the spirit inside Abby really is Eshu at all, and the film’s final resolution leaves the point unclear.) In Europe, meanwhile, sex would become such a big part of the formula that movies like Malabimba and Naked Exorcism would be released in hardcore versions.
But despite the new emphasis on sex, it’s easy to see why AI got sued by Warner Brothers about a month after Abby hit the theaters. None of the Italian Exorcist ripoffs I’ve seen steal nearly as much of their stories from the Friedkin/Blatty movie as this one— hell, Abby even tosses in a bunch of near-subliminal shots of the demon’s face during the scare scenes. Practically the only thing Girdler neglected to snag from The Exorcist was the quality! The interesting thing, though, is that Warner Brothers actually lost the suit in the end. But because the litigation dragged on until 1978, by which time Exorcist fever had more or less run its course, American International never bothered re-releasing their movie even after they won the court battle, and the bigger studio got what it really wanted anyway. Abby wasn’t even given legit release on home video, although bootleg editions do exist— how else do you think I, who had just been born when this film made its brief run of the theaters, managed to see it? It’s a shame that whoever currently owns the American International back catalogue hasn’t seen fit to turn Abby loose, because it’s a fabulous disaster that is well worth checking out.* I have to give props to William Marshall, however. He somehow manages to retain his considerable dignity even while a woman in embarrassingly awful possession makeup is croaking curses at him as the surrounding chintzy bar set flies to pieces all around. The effect is not unlike that of some of Christopher Lee’s more pitiable Italian-made rent-payers: an awesome pillar of professionalism towering above a horde of cretinous goons as they jabber amongst themselves, squatting in puddles of their own filth.