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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: Sweet Sugar (1972) review


Phyllis Davis (Sugar Bowman), Ella Edwards (Simone), Timothy Brown (Mojo), Angus Duncan (Dr. John), Pamela Collins (Dolores), Jackie Giroux (Fara), Cliff Osmond (Burgos), James Whitworth (Mario), Darl Severns (Carlos), Albert Cole (Max), James Houghton (Rick)

Directed by Michel Levesque

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

The Short Version: The man who brought you WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS (1973) pours some sugar on the exploitation audience with this sweet and savage Drive In trash obscurity that is crying out for a legitimate DVD release. New World rival Dimension Pictures knew well the market their opposition catered to, and they could churn out equally entertaining clones, such as this picture that apes Corman's WIP flicks. The abundance of sleaze substitutes nicely for a plot and its many underdeveloped characters -- most of whom are never overdressed. The ultimate Phyllis Davis showcase, SWEET SUGAR satisfies. 

After being set up and arrested for drug possession, the sexy Sugar is given an option to avoid a drawn out trial -- spend two years in a Central American prison working the vast sugar cane fields. She agrees and and it isn't long before her libidinous ways get her and her fellow inmates into serious trouble. Torture, rape, cannibalism and death ensue when the girls are at the mercy of the sadistic Dr. John and his bizarre sexual experiments.

Before Jack Hill's THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1970) incarcerated the contents of paying customers wallets, WIP pictures were few and far between. At one time the biggest moneymaking independent picture of that time, the Jack Hill directed, Corman produced, Philippine lensed exploitationer gave birth to a slew of clones including the classicks THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS (1973) and ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE SS (1974). Dimension Pictures (New World's rival), did their own version with SWEET SUGAR (1972).

Michel Levesque's movie is an amalgamation of Corman's trashy trinity of banana republic travesties -- THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1970), WOMEN IN CAGES (1971) and THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972). The one major difference is that those movies took place in the Philippines and Dimension's picture is located somewhere in Central America. Incidentally, both SUGAR and DOLL HOUSE share the same scriptwriter in Don Spencer. 


As portrayed by the incredible Phyllis Davis, Sugar Bowman is essentially Anitra Ford's character from THE BIG BIRD CAGE. She's perpetually horny and repeatedly tries to escape, albeit unsuccessfully. Her libido and dedication to busting out (haha) lead to all sorts of harrowing and nasty situations that do little to endear Sugar to her fellow captives. 

In typical 70s exploitation fashion, the picture has a bevy of funny lines, and Davis gets a lot of them. She carries the entire movie on her bosom and sports one helluva 'come hither' look when she's feeling frisky (which is often).

Davis's Drive In career was short-lived, but she did lend her talents to numerous television programs such as her role on VEGA$ (1978-1981), and frequent guest spots on THE LOVE BOAT (1979-1984) and FANTASY ISLAND (1979-1983). BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970) and Dimension's TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) are among her handful of big screen credits.

Since these jungle sleaze movies garnered a share of their attention because of the talents of Pam Grier, this one invokes her memory in the form of Ella Edwards. Sadly, Edwards never manages to exude enough charisma to rival the presence of Davis. Still, she has a few memorable moments. Edwards can also be seen in Arthur Marks's excellent cop thriller DETROIT 9000 (1973).

Fans of THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) will welcome the appearance of James 'Papa Jupiter' Whitworth as Mario, one of the nasty prison guards. He appeared in a similar capacity in Dimension's TERMINAL ISLAND the following year in 1973. If you ever wanted to see him play a good guy, he has a co-starring role in the SciFi monster movie PLANET OF DINOSAURS (1978).

One of SWEET SUGAR's novel additions that deviates from the New World WIP template is the inclusion of a voodoo practitioner in the form of the muscular Timothy Brown. Like his colleagues Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, Timothy was a former football player. Unfortunately, he never quite achieved the level of big screen stardom of those two. If you're a fan of the innovative THE WILD, WILD WEST television program, you may remember Brown in the season three opener, 'The Night of the Bubbling Death'. He was more muscular in that show, but slimmed down a bit by the time he got around to SWEET SUGAR. He appeared alongside Alex Rocco as Digger, one of two hitmen in another Arthur Marks classic, BONNIE'S KIDS (1973). The third 'Ginger' movie, GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING (1973) and Al Adamson's THE DYNAMITE BROTHERS (1974) featured Brown as well.

Outside of the inclusion of voodoo rites, SWEET SUGAR goes deeper into the depths of derangement with the character of Dr. John. Initially, the acting of Angus Duncan never once clues you in on the mans lunatic potential till it flares up later in the movie. His sexual experiments masquerading as scientific research become increasingly bizarre as the film progresses. His first faux scientific breakthrough involves using the women as guinea pigs; injecting them with some tribal aphrodisiac -- their reaction being recorded on a mechanical device. Of course, Sugar is sent into an orgiastic frenzy that literally overloads the little machine. The picture is likewise injected with comical moments such as this from time to time and mostly revolve around two bumbling, but likable prison guards, Max and Ricky.

Towards the end, the lighter bits vanish completely. Dr. John becomes more creepy and even more disturbing. He's seen cackling gleefully when an unruly guard is shot some 9 times and kicked half a dozen times afterward(!). 

Another of the bad doctors experiments sees him get the women back in line by tossing drugged up felines at them that bite, rip and tear at their flesh! Although it's obvious the cats are definitely not ripping the girls up, the scene is edited just well enough to be sufficiently believable. 

Dr. John really goes off the deep end during the finale. Apparently the bump on his head he gets from Sugar's machete handle loosens a screw or two. Duncan's acting style radically changes turning into a full blown wacko laughing uncontrollably and vociferously uttering such lines in third person as "Dr. John is indestructible!" and "Dr. John is immortal!" It's really something to behold. This burst of unintentional hilarity complements the half-baked, but energetic mass gun battle that ends the picture.

Despite some sloppy moments here and there, SWEET SUGAR flies across the finish line with a multitude of nude scenes and sex that, others in the cast notwithstanding, showcases Davis's fabulous frame. There's also a high trash quotient that keeps things moving along at a relatively brisk pace. The film stumbles a bit till about 30 minutes in, but after that, it's an all access pass to depravity. Killer cats, cannibalism, torture and some lesbianism supplement the fact that there is zero plot holding it all together. The music is made up of library tracks familiar to fans of kung fu movies and low budget 'lake monster' flicks such as BOG (1978).

If you're hypoglycemic where pure exploitation and Drive In sleaze are concerned, than SWEET SUGAR is just the dose of lowbrow entertainment you're looking for.

You can buy the DVD HERE.


Samuel Wilson said...

Ah, nostalgia! I think this was the first movie I reviewed on my own blog, and your review brings back fun memories. Back then I saw it on the old Movieflix site, which wasn't great on picture quality but had a lot of obscure exploitation stuff. Something official to own would be very cool.

venoms5 said...

Before I wrote this, I did a search to see how many reviews there were of it, and I found yours, Sam. I didn't realize it was your first, though. Yes, I would like to see an official release of this at some point, myself.

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