Oct 1, 2012

Sugar Hill (1974)

Director: Paul Maslansky
Writer: Tim Kelly
Producer: Elliott Schick
Music: Dino Fekaris, Nick Zesses
Cinematography: Robert Jessup
American-International Pictures; 83 min; color

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

When Diana “Sugar” Hill’s boyfriend is murdered by racketeers who want to move in on his club, she seeks the help of her aunt, a voodoo priestess (played by Zara Cully- TV’s Mother Jefferson!) to raise the dead, and have the zombies carry out her bidding. Sugar Hill is among the horror-themed Blaxploitation pictures of the 1970s (a la Blacula; Blackenstein; Abby), and as far as occult-themed revenge films of the era go, it is more creepier than, say, Jennifer: The Snake Goddess (to name another movie that features a heroine reaching into her heritage to wreak vengeance), but perhaps has less conviction in the performance.

Paul Maslansky’s one film as director (he was largely a producer, including, of all things, the Police Academy series), however, has an engaging, otherworldly feel. Within its limited mise en scene of dry ice and mossy foregrounds, Sugar Hill succeeds in capturing the mysticism of the south in ways seldom seen on camera, surpassing such bigger films as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The zombies are quite unnerving with their cobweb-covered grey skin and silver ping-pong eyes: evoking a primitivism that suits a movie about old practices manifesting in the modern world. The picture opens with what we perceive as a modern voodoo ritual, scored with one of the great, unsung themes in all of Blaxploitation: “Supernatural Voodoo Woman”, only ha-ha, we learn that what we’ve seen is a dance performance at the “Club Haiti”, owned fittingly enough by Sugar’s boyfriend. This clever touch, I’m afraid, is about as far as things go for depth, as the rest of the picture is pure exposition, as the two-dimensional hoodlums get dispatched by the zombies in bizarre ways. What starts off as an intriguing premise sadly mires itself in Blaxploitation clich├ęs featuring lots of jive-talking hustlers, a catfight for good measure, and even a white heavy who masterminds the racket.

As Sugar, Marki Bey is a pleasing screen presence: this bright-eyed beauty was one of many interesting players whose careers mysteriously faded away by the end of the 70s. She spends most of the movie with a knowing half-smirk: either she’s kidding the material, or her character enjoys the mental games she constantly plays with her ex-boyfriend the investigating detective, and even the crook who wants to buy the nightclub she has inherited.

Sure, seeing her man dead in the parking lot is reason enough for wanting revenge, but still I think this narrative could have used at least one other scene early on; how does she refer to her heritage prior to the killing? While Marki Bey's character doesn’t have enough dimension, the actress adds another aura to the movie: her wide face isn’t the typical matinee idol look- just slightly offbeat enough to add to the gallery of interesting faces throughout (despite how little these characters have to do).

Perhaps the most telling screen presence is the wild-eyed Don Pedro Colley as the omnipresent head spirit Baron Samedi, who is in various guises at the scenes of vengefulness. It is interesting to see Robert Quarry as the main heavy: AIP was grooming him to be their next great horror star a la Vincent Price, but the transition never quite took hold. He lends an interesting air of aristocracy to his work- even though here, he spends most of his time popping Marlboros and wearing Paisleys. Sadly this less-than-spectacular outing was his swansong with AIP.

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