My Netflix Queue is Outrageous Ch. 3: Sugar Hill
With another semester comes another film class, and random film consumption must inevitably give way to required viewing. The ongoing war of attrition against my out-of-control Netflix instant queue hasn’t been forgotten though, and last night I ran across a surprising little gem in 1974’s Sugar Hill. The only directorial effort of Police Academy series producer Paul Maslansky, Sugar Hill falls into an extremely tiny subgenre: blaxploitation zombie revenge. If that string of words gets you as excited as it did for me, by all means read on–you’re in for a treat!
The film kicks off at Club Haiti, an extremely successful Voodoo themed nightclub run by Sugar Hill’s boyfriend Langston. Local crime boss Mr. Morgan wants to buy the club, and Langston refuses to sell out. Normally this would be the beginning of a pretty generic plot, but Langston is beaten to death by Morgan’s thugs within the first few minutes, leaving Sugar in charge of the nightclub. The cops are called in but are of course powerless, because like any good 70’s crime boss, Morgan is bigger than the law. I mean, he has like six guys working for him! Rather than cave in and sell the club, Sugar immediately sets out for revenge, and that’s where things get awesome. Rather than grabbing a gun and going on a Pam Grier-style vengeance bender, Sugar seeks out the help of Mama Maitresse, a century-plus old Voodoo priestess who lives in a spiderweb-coated mansion out in the swamp.
Maitresse sympathizes with Sugar’s plight, but says she’s become too old and too weak to help. When Sugar persists, Maitresse says that if she’s entirely committed to getting revenge, she can put her in touch with someone that may be able to help. They venture out into the swamp together, find a hidden altar, and make an offering of jewelry to summon Baron Samedi, the Haitian lord of the dead. Samedi summons an army of the dead to aid Sugar in her quest, raising the corpses of dead slaves out of the surrounding marshlands, still wearing their shackles. Zombies of course have their roots in Voodoo legend, but surprisingly few films maintain those ties, and it’s always cool to see one that does. The zombies themselves look great: covered in cobwebs and skeletal white paint, with bulging silver eyes, definitely a unique take on an overused monster. As an interesting side note, one of Baron Samedi’s roles in actual Voodoo lore was to prevent zombies from happening by ensuring that corpses rotted away, but that would have made him pretty unhelpful on the revenge front.
With a crew of zombies at her disposal, Sugar gets down to business, killing off Morgan’s goons one by one. The first is a straightforward zombie attack, but after that the kills take on a more interesting voodoo theme, which keeps things fresh. Sugar also takes the time to restyle her hair into an afro and rock a white jumpsuit for each kill, which is odd, but an interesting touch. In a cool turn of events, Baron Samedi himself is present at each killing, usually in a disguise of some sort. Not to take anything away from Marki Bey as Sugar, because she’s actually really good, but Don Pedro Colley’s performance as Samedi is absolutely the best thing about the movie. It’s a shame that the character was confined to one mostly-forgotten 70’s film. He maintains an excellent balance of charisma and intimidation, and could have easily carried his own horror franchise. I was actually sad when I thought his role would be confined to simply summoning the zombies, so it was great to see him keep showing up.
As a huge fan of horror, blaxploitation, and really just 70’s films in general, I have to say that Sugar Hill absolutely nails it on all relevant fronts. It’s a pretty unique crossover concept, coupled with interesting characters and some surprisingly solid performances. The bad guys are par for the genre and the plot is basic, but Sugar and Samedi are a likeable duo. The death scenes might be a little tame for horror aficionados, but I’m sure the budget on this thing was next to nothing, and the Voodoo flair is enough to keep it interesting. I find myself wanting to watch it again already as I write this, and the theme song “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” has been stuck in my head since last night. The DVD is readily available on Amazon, which I didn’t expect when I went looking for it, and if you want to try before you buy it’s available on Netflix instant, along with a surprising treasure trove of 70’s exploitation gold.
Posted on September 8, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged 70's, Baron Samedi, Blaxploitation, Don Pedro Colley, Horror, Marke Bey, Netflix Instant, Sugar Hill, Voodoo, Zombie. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.