Monday, February 28, 2011

Sugar Hill (1974)

Coming two years after its spiritual successor, Sugar Hill takes the basic plot line, afro, and title-based on main character convention from the previously reviewed Coffy. Unable to get Pam Grier, who by this time was making more well-known B-movie junk, AIP, the distributor of Blacula, cast Marki Bey, an actress best known for 1) her appearances on Starsky and Hutch and 2) kind of looking like Pam Grier. But while Coffy is a strong black woman's revenge on a gang of drug dealers, Sugar Hill takes that same idea and adds VOODOO ZOMBIES.

The funkiest zombies in town.

Wasting little time, the movie shows Sugar and her boyfriend at the club Haiti enjoying a mock voodoo ritual. This scene of domestic bliss gets interrupted when a gangster non-ironically calling himself "Fabulous" and his posse show up, giving a last warning from their boss. Sugar's boyfriend turns them down, then wanders off into the parking lot. Whereupon he is immediately beaten to death in a scene notable for its total lack of violence. Seriously it's like a .2 on the Rodney King scale. Sugar is consoled by Valentine (Richard Lawson), a homicide detective who wants a taste of Sugar. I'd at least wait until after the funeral, buddy.

They don't call him "Fabulous" for nothing!

With her boyfriend dead, Sugar decides she needs to take action. And rather than pretend to be a prostitute, she decides to look up her local voodoo priestess, Momma Maitresse (Zara Cully, aka Mother Jefferson). She convinces Maitresse she's serious in wanting undead help, and the voodoo woman conjures up Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), a grinning, incredibly creepy god of the dead. Impressed by Sugar's moxie, Baron agrees to give her an army of the undead, summoning up zombies with metal ball bearings for eyes, instructing Sugar to use them "only for evil." Historical note: this is basically the original zombie legend: a voodoo person with powers over the dead predates the shuffling undead that we all know and love today.

What follows is eminently predictable: Sugar gets members of the gang that killed her boyfriend alone, and, one at a time, uses zombies and voodoo to gruesomely murder them. Detective Valentine immediately suspects fowl play (voodoo joke) when he finds old slave shackles at the scene of a crime. However, despite a trip to the voodoo library, Valentine can't convince anyone to believe his crazy stories. Not even when he gets voodoo-ed into falling down a flight of stairs. The film totally forgets about him and he doesn't appear in the last act.

The Baron's happy to be anywhere.

Despite the predictability of the plot, I had a lot of fun with the film. There's two things I want to single out. The first is Colley's performance as Baron Samedi: it is amazing. It's a broad, hammy performance, but it's in a no-budget movie and he's playing a trickster god, so he's entitled to ham it up. In addition to his ever-present grin, Samedi indirectly leads several of the henchmen to their deaths by donning various disguises. What's hilarious is how bad these disguises are: he affects an antebellum Mark Twain character accent that no one seems to notice. While some may see this as a "goof," I saw it as a comment on how out of touch Samedi had become with stereotypical roles. It totally makes sense that a loa of the dead that was at his most popular in the 19th century wouldn't be a superfly funk-tastic soul brotha. Maybe that's why he's so happy to help Sugar: he doesn't have much to do any more.


Another thing I noticed and that should be the subject of some media student's term paper in blaxploitation is how Sugar wears her hair down in her alter ego as a professional photographer, but for all her murders she dons a huge afro. It's another thing that could be dismissed as a continuity gaffe, but it may also be a commentary on societal expectations: when she's herself, she wears the afro, while she wears her hair down while out and about in society. Oh, and undergrad students doing research for your blaxploitation paper: be sure to credit me. Also, I'm pretty sure Sugar's experience working with female models gave her the experience she needed to ably direct cold, lifeless, horrifically thin creatures.

Oh God what is that horrible creature she's controlling in the black two piece?!

Trivia: The film is set in New Orleans but is obviously filmed in Houston, including a scene at the Heights Library. When Maitresse takes Sugar to meet the Baron, it's out in the middle of a grassy field on a bright, sunny day. The "swamp" around Maitresse's home also gets a terrible audio track that has a bunch of generic jungle noises, including a monkey screech. I'm not sure why a swamp would be full of loud monkeys.

Arbitrary Ranking:

1 Baron Samedi Laugh out of 1:

Memorable Quotes:

Langston: Fabulous, get yo' lanky ass outta my place!

(Fabulous is shining shoes) Morgan: Oh come on, Fabulous, you can do better then that. We'll make an honest [n-word] out of you yet!

Sugar (quoting her dead boyfriend): "From now on you're gonna be "sugar hill," 'cause you look as sweet as sugar tastes."

Baron Samedi: This is MY DOMAIN. A kingdom of the dead!

Baron Samedi: Put them to evil use! It's all they know... or want!

Tank: You know, you got one of the prettiest asses in town. I'd hate to see it kicked in!

Baron Samedi: How about a drink on the house? A drink I'm famous for? The zombie.

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