Abby Normal (A Woman Under the Influence)
ABBY should of course have been called THE BLAXORCIST, but the difference between this and William “King Dick” Marshall’s other horror franchise is that BLACULA derives from a 19th century novel, safely out of copyright (with only the cape borrowed from Bela Lugosi) whereas ABBY derives from a major Warners release. Warners sued and ABBY was taken out of cinemas — though DVDs now circulate, they’re derived from a badly “pinked” 16mm print — nobody knows where the original negative and release prints may be…
William Girdler, writer-director, also made the ridiculous but fun THE MANITOU, memorable for Tony Curtis’s voluminous man-boobs pressing through his see-through shirt. ABBY offers no comparably disturbing images, but does share the fascination with tribal religions. Blatty’s EXORCIST cheekily suggests that Mesopotamian deity Pazuzu is moonlighting as a biblical demon, implying that perhaps ALL the gods and prophets of mankind’s faiths are really just demons in a Catholic universe (Buddha’s not laughing with you, he’s laughing AT you), ABBY centres on Eshu, a god from the Yoruba religion who is allowed his own phenomenological reality. And although the mischievous (to put it mildly) Eshu is ultimately vanquished by a priest, he’s not exorcised by the Catholic ceremony designed for that purpose, but by methods appropriate to the Yoruba religion. So in that sense, ABBY is less conservative than the bigger film.
Girdler tends to exaggerate the effects of the Friedkin film, though, so he has more “subliminal” flashes of weird faces (Dick Smith make-up tests in the original film, exaggerated versions of Carol Speed’s make-up in this one), while paring away ambiguities — the “Why Iraq?” stuff in the first film is replaced by more or less clearly motivated Nigerian scenes in this one. He also makes his victim of possession an adult, which removes some problems (could you legally make Friedkin’s film today?) and creates others.
Subliminal image alert!
On the one hand, having a preacher’s wife possessed by a sex demon could open avenues for grotesque satire (Milo Manara’s porno comic Click! filmed by Jean-Louis Richard [who married Jeanne Moreau, who also married... William Friedkin] gestures vaguely in that direction, with its free hand), but the film is very respectful towards religion, so sex has to be viewed as a horror. Eruptions of untamed libido must be stopped. Admittedly, Speed’s aggressive lust when she’s under Eshu’s influence, she’s pretty unladylike. But the conservatism that’s so unexpectedly prominent in the supernatural blaxploitation genre comes to the fore here.
But so does something else. Friedkin’s cleverest move was perhaps his casting of Mercedes McCambridge as the Voice — years of cigarettes and whisky and being Mercedes McCambridge had given her a throaty, rasping, gargly sound with only a trace of the female. Girdler simply gets a man to do it, and so Abby becomes a hairy-browed sexual predator with a man’s voice. Why do all William Marshall movies end up in a homoerotic Hades of pushmepullyou conflicted response?
ABBY has very committed performances from its ensemble, though Juanita Moore (not only of IMITATION OF LIFE, but Marshall’s co-star in LYDIA BAILEY) doesn’t get enough to do. Her one big moment is an outraged frenzy that anybody should suggest that her vicious nymphomaniac daughter might benefit from the attentions of a psychiatrist. Apparently she’s “good” and “God-fearing” and so she couldn’t possibly be mentally ill. That’s a pretty interesting (ie wrongheaded and dangerous) line of thought, though the movie is perhaps using it simply to avoid a bunch of boring analyst scenes. Instead we get colossal steel slabs of Chrysler maneuvering around Louisville at night.
Marshall is somewhat constrained by playing a man of the cloth, but his wry humour does come out, especially during the climax when he taunts Eshu, using some of his old Blacula condescension — I wasn’t sure whether he’s saying the demon is NOT Eshu in order to annoy it, or because he’s genuinely figured that out. But apparently this is stuff that Marshall added to the script himself, and it’s the best writing in the movie.
The whole climax takes place, in a departure from the source material, in a ghastly orange nightclub, made even more oppressive by the pinkness of the print. This is what the seventies WAS, people. We had brown and orange and that was it. The rest of the spectrum was embargoed until Prince came along. This colourless, windowless, airless, low-ceilinged lounge space is unquestionably the most frightening element of ABBY, and it’s worth watching to get there. Interestingly, since THE HUNGER, vampires have been associated with nightclubs — usually crap movie ones that are years out of date. They’re never frightening, even though a night club is my real-life idea of Hell. But ABBY’s tangerine leisure spaceship is genuinely a horrible, horrible place, where you can feel your soles sticking to the carpet from all the spilled drinks. Don’t watch alone.