Friday, 6 May 2016
(ZOMBIES OF) SUGAR HILL (1974)
In 1974, AIP released a Blaxploitation film that cashed in on the voodoo horror theme that made the Bond film Live and Let Die such fun (itself capitalising on Blaxploitation’s popularity). This synchronicity of influences benefitted Sugar Hill as it’s well-made, great fun and directed by Paul Maslansky, later the producer of the Police Academy series. The plot is simple enough and wastes no time in setting up a premise that invites you to sit back and vicariously enjoy the pay-off. Tim Kelly’s script is functional but contains some humdinger attitudinal trailer lines that this kind of film thrives on.
Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (lusciously vampish genre star Marki Bey) has a club-owning boyfriend who is being leaned on to sell his place to thugs employed by gang boss Morgan (Robert Quarry, a star of horror films of the period such as The Abominable Dr Phibes). Inevitably since he won’t sell, his integrity gets him beaten to death outside the club. Sugar vows unholy revenge. Her ex-boyfriend, torch-carrying Lt Valentine, the debonair Richard Lawson (Scream Blacula Scream) wants to help but Sugar is impatient: “ If I knew who they were, I would fix it so I could see them die…slowly”.
This might just give her away as more than the routine prime suspect later on, but Sugar cares not - this is one bitter-sweet widow. She goes to ask for the supernatural help of a Voodoo priestess, the white-haired Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), who prefaces the ritual by warning Sugar of the consequences of invoking the greatest of her Voodoo gods, Baron Samedi. Her client understands that whatever bargain is extracted, it will be worth it. Strangely, like TV evangelists, Samedi is seemingly not immune to, or any good with, earthly materialism: “He is a greedy god. Have you any money?”
Samedi is summoned – and what a character he is. Live and Let Die fans will be familiar with this spectral imp’s macabre elegance and here Don Pedro Colley is a wonderfully flamboyant incarnation, with an infectious, wide-eyed glee in his top-hat and tails. He brings forth a strikingly effective army of zombies, silver-eyed and cobwebbed - more old Universal than Lucio Fulci, but highly memorable all the same.
Immediately, Sugar and Samedi go to work and the real fun begins. As we witness each of the gang members being dispatched in increasingly spooky ways, Bey is on hand every time to savour their demises in a stunning white one-piece suit with bouffant afro. Samedi disguises himself as a range of characters, such as a dodgy taxi driver, to facilitate the hoods’ entrapment - as if hosting the unfolding carnage. Morgan’s dock-land henchman, ‘Tank’ Watson, who demands kickbacks from his day workers in return for a shift, is the first to be killed by the zombies in a warehouse, Bey gloating: “I’m not accusing you. Honk. I’m passing sentence!” Since Sugar didn’t see her boyfriend’s murder, it’s never explained how she knows the gangsters’ separate identities, but no matter. The pace is quick enough for us to let logic gaps slide like chicken fat.
Over the course of the film, subsequent goons are bumped off using ravenous pigs, a possessed chicken’s foot, Voodoo dolls and even a particularly creepy massage with the most ‘unhappy’ of endings; “I don’t like it” says the soon-to-be victim as undead fingers trail up and down his back – all inventive and hugely entertaining.
Morgan has a caustic bitch of a girlfriend, Celeste, whose vicious racism earns us a ringside seat to a bit of girl-on-girl fighting between her and Sugar. Meanwhile, Valentine enquires about Voodoo mythology from an English professor of the occult.
As Sugar closes in to offer more than a spoonful of rough justice to Morgan, she goads him to meet her at the club. It is in her name now but she will not sell it after all. Morgan is not happy at this - “Your ass!!” he screams, highlighting just one of her many attributes. He can’t resist the trap laid out for him in his thwarted anger, one that includes the nice touch of a tableful of his now-zombified employees grinning at him. If you’re curious as to how he gets offed, well, what is that ain’t exactly mud and ain’t exactly water?
Samedi reminds Sugar that he is now owed a suitable fee for his living-dead services. As luck would have it, Celeste had accompanied Morgan to the venue. The Baron would have preferred the shapely Sugar, yet is content to settle for scooping up the shrieking mobster moll and take her with him to Hell…
Sugar Hill is a great example of what happens when Blaxploitation horror elements are put together with humour, a decent budget and talent. In fact, it’s such a promising piece that I’d even commit what would normally be sacrilege for me and suggest its’ ripeness for remake possibilities. Rather than the current vogue for re-doing what are perfectly realised horror movies already, I’d be intrigued to see what the result would be with modern FX, or even if the laughs were sacrificed for a pure horror tone. Regardless, this is stylish entertainment, topped off by great use of the Motown tune ‘Supernatural Voodoo woman’ by the Originals.