Contradictory as it may sound, better isn’t always better. Such is the case with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ turn of the decade sexploitation Western Linda and Abilene, best known these days for being one of several low budget features filmed at the Spahn Movie Ranch while the Manson family was in residence. Though more ambitious and both better produced and written than Lewis’ earlier quickie The Ecstasies of Women (also made in 1969), Abilene ultimately suffers for it in so far as its entertainment value is concerned. Where Ecstasies was so hurriedly, horribly manufactured that it could’t help but be fun, Abilene was made just well enough to become tiresome. Indeed, the one significant boon gleaned from the extra time and money involved is of the purely technical variety – where Ecstasies could only manage the in-camera (rd: free) fade-outs common to Lewis’ work, Abilene could afford the added lab expense of proper optical dissolves.
Penned by an uncredited Allison Louis Downe, frequent Lewis collaborator and co-writer of his splatter-schlock classic Blood Feast, Abilene starts out as a sweet, if uncomfortably incestuous, frontier romance. Rural siblings Todd and Abilene are on their own after their parents die of who-knows-what. As the two come together to take care of the family property an attraction builds between them, one bolstered by Todd’s turn as a sneaky bath-watching voyeur and a bit of solo bed-time fantasizing on both their parts. Before long their brother-sister bond takes on a decidedly physical dimension, and Todd and Abilene are coming together in ways that would have dear Mama and Papa turning in their backyard graves.
But alas, as Todd and Abilene take to each other like proper deviants their attention to the daily grind dwindles, and their beloved property falls swiftly into disrepair. With the kitchen overtaken with filth and the lawn in dire need of some tender loving care Todd reaches breaking point, fleeing Abilene to find a more appropriate physical distraction in town. In the saloon he discovers Linda, who is evidently itching for a roll with a farm boy, but while they grow drunk and disorderly local ne’er-do-well Rawhide (seen raping Linda in the ever-tasteful opening credits) takes the opportunity to pay the vulnerable Abilene a visit. When Todd finally returns home Abilene is a shambles, traumatized by Rawhide’s assault and angry at Todd’s abandonment. Todd heads off once more to see that Rawhide gets what’s coming to him, but while he’s away Linda makes an unexpected call, and a new romance begins…
If there’s a single issue that drags Linda and Abilene down it’s that it takes just too damned long to get wherever it’s going, a fact evidenced perfectly by the very first shot (post-credits) of the picture. We see Todd and Abilene dish the last few shovels of dirt onto their parent’s graves, pay their respects, hop into a horse-drawn carriage and wheel away, all captured in a grueling unbroken master shot that tests the audience’s patience for the best part of three minutes. It would almost be funny were it not so dull, and Lewis treats viewers to a nigh-verbatim retread of the same at the film’s attention-defying conclusion. Lewis does do better by the rest of the drama, and while his trademark masters are present and accounted for (with ill-prepared performers drifting in and out of them as always) he at least takes the time to intercut them with a few close-ups to break up the action. It just isn’t enough to help. Abilene repeats itself endlessly, from Todd and Abilene’s multiple encounters (all cut end-to-end) to the endless montage relating their budding affections to an unnecessary repetition of Todd’s stream-side bath time voyeurism. Despite a generally higher caliber of writing one gets the impression that there’s even less story here than there was to Ecstasies, and Abilene‘s 92 minutes really creep.
And what of Abilene‘s star attraction, it’s abundance of nudity and sexual situations (“Hotter than blazing pistols!” went the ads)? Lewis takes a few additional chances here, hinting at oral sex, wrangling Abilene and Todd into a bit of simultaneous masturbation, and even throwing in some gratuitous lesbianism to spice up the finale, but this is still remarkably tame for X-rated fare. Despite any insinuation (“Branded ‘X’ Due to Explicit Scenes” says the poster) the sex here is all of the loud roll-about variety, and one-go actor Kip Marsh (as Todd) goes so far as to keep his jeans on for all of his scenes with the perpetually disrobed Sharon Matt (Abilene), here appearing for the second time in as many pictures for Lewis. Co-star Roxanne Jones seems to have had more of a taste for the material than the rest and, as Linda, manages to bring some energy to at least her portion of Abilene‘s simulated thrash sessions. Lewis, doubling down once again as both cinematographer and director, sticks to the same gonzo handheld style evidenced throughout his sex and gore pictures. Any eroticism to be found is purely coincidental.
Despite all I’ve said I have to admit that I did’t hate or even really dislike Linda and Abilene. It just bored me, which I suppose is a risk we all take when delving too deeply into H.G. Lewis’ film career – I don’t take it personally. Regardless of how Abilene turned out I’m ultimately just thrilled to have been able to see it at all, and mark one more of the director’s longstanding unseeables off the list.
‘Linda and Abilene’ is out now from Vinegar Syndrome as part of their The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis Blu-ray / DVD triple feature (which includes ‘L&A’, plus ‘The Ecstasies of Women’ and the mega-rare hardcore docu-sploiter ‘Black Love’). VinSyn’s restoration of the film looks typically lovely (though some compression artifacts here and there do detract a bit), and the release comes highly recommended to those with a taste for this sort of thing.