The Bad Movie Report

Sugar Hill
Sugar Hill
Sugar Hill


It is probable that only in Hollywood - and then, only in the early '70s - could a word like blaxploitation be coined. The root and meaning of the word is obvious; for some time, cheap action flicks featuring the underused minority actor community were the flavor of the month in theaters. The problem, of course, was the ploitation part. Most often, these flicks were simply recast versions of earlier, all-white movies, made quickly and efficiently and hurled into distribution. In an effort to distinguish themselves from the other Shaft and Black Caesar clones, some filmmakers started striking out into other filmic territory. After awhile, things got a little absurd, as in Blackenstein (shudder); and some that were at least halfway original in concept, like Sugar Hill.

We start off promisingly enough with your typical voodoo ceremony, complete with snakes, chicken blood, and convulsing dancers possessed by loa. The opening credits run over this scene, and it is scored by the song "Supernatural Voodoo Woman" by The Originals (courtesy Motown Records), which, while listenable, is a bit too slow for the antics onscreen - our first indication that something is up. The second indication is when the ceremony is over, lights come up and applause thunders; we have been watching the floor show at the incredibly successful Club Haiti.

In attendance is Diana "Sugar" Hill (Marki Bey), the fiancee of the Club's owner, Langston (Larry B. Johnson). A short round of loverly billing and cooing is interrupted by the arrival of four thug-types, led by Fabulous (Charles Robinson), who will be modeling all the retina-scorching Huggy Bear pimp clothes for this outing (although Langston's jacket with the odd scalloped lapels bears mentioning). Fabulous comes bearing news (okay, a veiled threat) from Morgan, a local crime lord who wants to buy Club Haiti. Langston, of course, refuses, and in a remarkably lame fight scene, gets beaten to death in the parking lot for his defiance.

Fashion mistakes of a bygone era

Since the attackers all wore stockings over their heads (though who could not have recognized Fabulous' attire?) the police can do nothing, so Sugar returns to her run-down ancestral mansion, where (for some reason) the local ancient voodoo queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) is living. Sugar begs Mama Maitresse to use her voodoo powers to grant her vengeance on Morgan and his gang, so Mama takes Sugar waaaaaay into the swamp in back to her voodoo altar, that they may conjure up the Lord of the Undead, Baron Samedi.

Now, it was during the lengthy journey into the swamplands that I found myself thinking, "I could have started the movie here and still recognized it as an American International picture." Then I tried to figure out why I would have thought such a thing. Best I could come up with was that, although we are supposedly in the swamplands of Louisiana, the sound effects are exactly the same as those used in 1950's jungle movies, complete with that tell-tale bird that goes oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-OO! OO! I kept expecting to hear an elephant trumpet.

The Pips reunion is not going quite as planned...In any case, Baron Samedi arrives (in broad daylight; I still don't know if that was brilliant or a mistake) and Sugar petitions him for his aid. "And what will you give me?" asks the loa. "My soul!" Sugar answers without hesitation. "Ha! It's not your soul I want," Samedi replies. "The Baron is quite a lover," explains Mama Maitresse. To bear this out, the Baron is immediately flanked by a pair of zombie babes. Impressed by Sugar's lack of fear in his presence, Samedi agrees to help, causing a number of slaves buried in the swamp during a fever epidemic a century before to rise up, still shackled and carrying machetes. "Put them to evil use!" bellows the Baron. "It is all they know or want!"

Sugar wastes no time in tracking down and giving Langston's killers their comeuppance. One winds up on the wrong end of the zombie's machetes in a dockside warehouse - a positive ID is only possible when the police find his head in what appears Teach YOU to work for the Man, Fabulousto be a bag of grits. Another is tossed into a pen full of hungry pigs (Sugar: "I hope they're into white trash.") Yet another is forced via voodoo to stab himself to death. And Fabulous, visiting his favorite massage parlor, finds himself locked in a room full of zombie ho's.

Complicating matters on Sugar's vengeance trail is her old beau Valentine (Richard Lawson ), a police detective who starts to suspect that voodoo is at the root of this one-sided gang war, and that Sugar is somehow involved; also concurrent is the Big Boss Morgan's (Robert Quarry) continued attempts to obtain Club Haiti from Sugar by dint of his questionable suaveness... this to the dismay of his equally racist cracker moll Celeste (Betty Anne Rees). This leads to the mandatory catfight between Sugar and Celeste, which is every bit as lame as the earlier fight scene (you would think there is no way to screw up a catfight, but a way was found).

So let's get back to the zombie mayhem. After one hit man looking for answers winds up nailed to the wall with machetes, the very last member of Morgan's gang is locked into a coffin loaded with snakes. A thoroughly pissed-off Morgan tries to hunt down Sugar in her mansion, but finds instead a room filled with all his dead henchmen, now quite undead and ready to off him. The horrified Morgan is smashed through a window by a Spring Loaded Cat™. There's a bit of a chase, out into Maitresse's swampy church, where Morgan meets the end determined for all bad guys who run into a swamp, i.e., a convenient pit of quicksand.

"Calgon, take me away!"To keep her part of the bargain with Samedi, Sugar gives him Celeste. The Baron acknowledges that he would much prefer Sugar herself, but a deal is a deal, and he carries the unwilling, go-go booted moll into a nearby smoky special effect. The end... to the tune of "Supernatural Voodoo Woman", natch.

As one can tell from the summary, the plot is strictly first-year revenge drama stuff - it is the addition of voodoo and the resurrected slaves that causes one to hope that this movie might actually carve out its own identity, possibly bring some illumination to the blackness of the experience, not merely using it as a backdrop for a cheap horror film. There is only one thing that keeps Sugar Hill from fulfilling that promise: the script itself, which is shabby beyond redemption. The first scene between Sugar and Langston is mildly painful, leading into the stand-off between Langston and the thugs, which was scripted by constantly pulling down the lever on the Cliché-o-matic® and appending the epithet "boy" to the end of every other line.

Once the zombie plot kicks in, at least, our attention is distracted from the trashbin dialogue. The actors struggle mightily with their lines, and manage to overcome this burden for the most part; practically every speaking role is competently acted. Several of the henchmen/zombie victims are truly unfortunate exceptions. Then, they are only called upon to confirm they are racist cretins, snivel a bit, and then die.

Do you remember when Robert Quarry was apparently being groomed as a new horror star? Whatever happened to that? Sugar Hill was reportedly Quarry's last film under his AIP contract, and he doesn't look like he's enjoying it. Sporting a southern accent worthy of Joseph Cotten, Morgan makes us wonder just exactly what a Big Crime Lord does all day. From all "Hi, I'm Robert Quarry for Chess King..."appearances, he lounges around his apartment, drinking and abusing his underlings, especially his moll and Fabulous.

Which leads us to another criminally undeveloped subplot. After Langston's beating death, the first scene with all of the gang meeting in Morgan's apartment finds Fabulous, the sole black member of the gang, shining Morgan's shoes. Morgan urges him to work on the (symbolically?) white patent leather some more, claiming that "We'll make an honest nigra of you yet." We have the possibility of some real dramatic tension here, a sort of reverse Othello situation. Why does Fabulous put up with this? What is he getting from this relationship? Is it part of some elaborate scheme on his part? We'll never know, because Fabulous smiles and goes back to work on the shoes.

So, really, thank the God of Bad Movies for those zombies. Though they are remarkably intact for having spent a century in the ground, they are nonetheless some of the creepiest shamblers to grace the screen. It's not merely the cobwebs, graveyard dirt and shiny bug-eyes that grace each zombie, no, it's the fact that these undead like to smile. A lot. If evil truly is "all they know, or want," well, these fellas really enjoy their work. Those grins are unnerving in the extreme.

Samedi contemplates ending the Pauly Shore problemAs Baron Samedi, Don Pedro Colley simply folds up the film neatly and tucks it under his arm. Colley did actual research into voodoo beliefs and crafted a Lord of the Undead who is perversely full of life, whose manic grin is echoed in that of his minions. When I first saw Sugar Hill years ago, it was Colley who impressed me and continued to be memorable, long after every other detail of the movie had faded away. Samedi maintains a presence throughout the picture, appearing as a bartender, a cab driver, and even a slow-witted groundskeeper who isn't so slow that he can't introduce himself as "Old Sam"; this goes so far as to confirm the Baron's lesser-known function as a trickster spirit.

I've gone almost the entire review without talking about the leading lady, the title character, haven't I? Marki Bey is a bit problematic - I get the impression she was being offered up as the next Pam Grier, but that was a crowded field at the time and Bey didn't quite measure up. It's not that she's a bad actress. She holds up quite well against the heinous scripting, but she is victimized by one of the strangest motifs I've yet seen in a film.

You see, it's her hair. In the common, day-to-day scenes, Bey's hair is processed, flat, dark red. But put her around some zombies and she's suddenly sporting a Jim Kelly afro (and dazzling white jumpsuit). Punching the timeclock, she's Jackie Brown; punching some villain's timecard, she turns into Get Christy Love.

Marki bey - woman of many hairstyles

I have tried to reconcile this. Zombie scenes shot later? Earlier? None of that works logistically, not in a speedily shot AIP flick. The only interpretation I can offer is that the straight, processed look represents Sugar as she attempts to carve out her piece of the white man's world; but in her dealings with Mama Maitresse and Baron Samedi, she gets back in touch with her When Keane paintings go bad!own true ethnicity, and with it, power. Thus, she morphs into a Soul Train dancer. This is a shallow interpretation, I know, but movies like Sugar Hill don't exactly have a deep end.

You have to approach Sugar Hill with a bit of tolerance and good humor for the horribly dated parts (as when Morgan, completely out of character, opines that Sugar is "a very foxy lady"), the bad dialogue cut-and-pasted from other bad movies, and the near constant reminders that the bad guys are offensive, racist jerks (I get it, I get it, kill 'im already!). Don't expect Italian attack zombies. Do expect some creepy nightwalkers, camerawork, and acting better than the script deserves, and you and Sugar Hill will part friends over that last encore of "Supernatural Voodoo Woman".



Cardboard dialogue costs 'em a half-Tor.

- December 5, 1999