Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sugar Hill (1974) review


Marki Bey (Diana "Sugar" Hill), Robert Quarry (Morgan), Don Pedro Colley (Baron Samedi), Zara Cully (Mama Maitresse), Charles Robinson (Fabulous)

Directed by Paul Maslansky

After her boyfriend is brutally murdered by gangsters for refusing to sell his club, "Sugar" Hill enlists the aid of voodoo queen, Mama Maitresse to help her gain retribution. Summoning the devilish Baron Samedi from the underworld, Sugar barters her soul in exchange for the power to kill her enemies. Raising an army of zombie slaves, Sugar Hill takes out her boyfriend's killers one by one till only Morgan, the leader of the mobsters, remains to die at the hands of the supernatural avengers.

Producer, Paul Maslansky tried his hand at directing with the blaxploitation horror hokum that is SUGAR HILL. One of the more curious of the black horror hybrids, it's not nearly as memorable as BLACULA (1972), nor is it as ridiculously hilarious (and that's a recommendation) as something like DR. BLACK & MR. HYDE (1976). Maslansky's sole directing credit falls somewhere in between. That's not a condemnation of the film, though. There's much to appreciate in SUGAR HILL if one approaches it in a braindead, bad film kind of way. The script is terrible and appears to have used both COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974) as a template.

The storyline has so much potential for exploitation goodness, but falls short of being sleaze personified by what appears to have been a troubled production and a PG rating. I'm curious if the film suffered producer interference before its release as it seems there may have been some footage removed to obtain the more child friendly rating. Even with its PG rating, the movie has a fair amount of racially charged dialog typically found in these movies. One particular scene is near the beginning in Morgan's apartment surrounded by his goons. His sole African American crony, Fabulous, stands by shining Morgan's shoes(!) Morgan soon walks over to him and says, "Come on, Fabulous, you can do better than that. We'll make an honest nigra outa' you yet."

The kill scenes are choice, but are let down by happening mostly off screen. One character is decapitated, another is eaten by starving pigs, one is killed by being placed inside a coffin filled with rattlesnakes and some others are killed via voodoo. One of the strangest aspects of these sequences is Diana "Sugar" Hill, herself. Her hairstyle changes into this huge afro during the death scenes and reverts back to long wavy hair the remainder of the time. It's as if she's become a different person entirely. Either that, or it's just bad editing.

The lovely Marki Bey goes from Super Chic.... Super Freak

The star, Marki Bey, is a lovely and beautiful woman, but she's mostly forgettable in her own movie. She never made a dent in cinema and finished out her decade long career in television programs such as STARSKY & HUTCH during that shows final two seasons. She reminds me of Vanessa Williams and has an extraordinary look about her. If only she had been more charismatic (the script doesn't help matters), she could have been another Tamara Dobson or Pam Grier.

Horror favorite, Robert Quarry plays the main villain and he's not very imposing, nor intimidating. The most he can muster for his bad guy role of Morgan is a handful of offensive lines both to the African Americans in the cast and his woman, Celeste. Quarry appears lost and even doubly so when attempting a Southern accent. Still, it's great to see Count Yorga, himself in a different surrounding even if the material doesn't really suit him.

SUGAR HILL (1974) is a pretty bad movie all around. Some of the scenes look like rehearsal footage. Case in point is the beat down at the beginning. Morgan's thugs tap at...I mean kick Sugar's boyfriend, Langston, repeatedly while he's on the ground. They truly do beat the hell out of him, but the scene is so poorly executed, it becomes laughable. It's all the more hilarious once Sugar has an emotional outburst over her boyfriend's lifeless body. Another lackluster, but uproarious sequence is a "fight scene" between Sugar and Morgan's woman, Celeste. You're likely to find better brawls in a preschool sandbox.

Still, what saves SUGAR HILL are two things--Don Pedro Colley and the absolutely creepy looking zombies. If not for these two factors, the film would be a hopeless exercise in tedium. Colley, who has had supporting roles in such films as BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) and THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972), is impressive as the lude, crude and blackly (is that a pun?) humorous Baron Samedi (they pronounce it as 'Som-dee'). Colley truly helps save the film. His entrance is especially comical looking and sounding like he's trying out as a horror movie host on a local television station. Colley devours this role and succeeds in stealing the movie away from the gorgeous Marki Bey.

The zombies are the other reason to check out SUGAR HILL. Covered in cobwebs and sporting exaggerated make up and big, bulbous eyeballs, these zombies don't eat anyone, but kill with machetes. There are male and female living dead and do make an impression often overshadowing the generally awful dialog. Another cool addition is seeing Mother Jefferson herself, Zara Cully, amongst the cast playing voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse.

Director, Paul Maslansky was then associated with horror and exploitation movies having been involved with the making of such films as the Barbara Steel horror opus, THE SHE BEAST (1966), the British cannibal horror classic, DEATH LINE (1972) and the classic action devil movie, RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975). He was also a producer on the movie FIRST BLOOD (1982) ripped off, RUCKUS (1981), starring Dirk Benedict and Linda Blair. The director is probably most famously associated with the flurry of POLICE ACADEMY movies that were unleashed to theaters throughout the 1980's.

Frequently being shown in widescreen format on cable television over the last few years, this blaxploitation voodoo horror has yet to obtain a legit DVD release. This doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. Even with its curious pedigree, it never attains being anything more than merely average. SUGAR HILL (1974) is nowhere near being great entertainment, but if you like cheesy movies, than this flick will satiate your palate.
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