Monday, December 20, 2010

Sugar Hill (1974)

This review is part of Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club.

When a white mobster kills a black nightclub owner, they did not count on his fiancée Diana 'Sugar' Hill and her zombie hit men. That's pretty much the entire plot of this entertaining and atmospheric horror movie, which is one of the few post-Night of the Living Dead zombie movies to feature traditional voodoo zombies.

Sugar Hill is one of AIP's attempts to cash in on the blaxploitation market and the horror movie market at the same time (see also my review of Blacula). In terms of story it's a standard blaxploitation revenge tale, but the mise-en-scène is pure horror.

As soon as Sugar takes counsel from her friendly local Mambo, Mama Maitresse, and the two of them call up voodoo loa Baron Samedi, things get kicked up several notches. This sequence is probably the best in the movie, as the two women go trekking through the woods, passing some stock footage of alligators and snakes, until they come to the part of the forest where the smoke machines live. There they call on the loa Baron Samedi and ask him to help them. In exchange for the promise of payment, he raises his army of the undead and puts them and himself at Sugar's beck and call.

These zombies are the real stars of this movie. They look wicked cool, covered with dust and cobwebs and with scary silver cat's eyes, wielding machetes and really relishing the slaughter of the evil white gangsters. Sugar Hill has one of the great "zombies rising from the grave" scenes of all time, and whenever they show up the movie really delivers.

The gore is very light, but the zombie kills are pretty sweet anyway. My favourite was the guy who was done in by a zombie massage (no happy ending), but the guy getting fed to the pigs was pretty cool as well. There was also a disembodied hopping chicken's foot in one scene, which I heartily approve of.

Marki Bey is initially unimpressive as Sugar Hill, but she goes through a remarkable transformation when she turns into a vengeful death machine. Her most astonishing scene is when she heads to the lair of head mobster Morgan (played by Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry. She is poised, elegant and superior; the idea of the scene is that she turns on the class and shows up these white thugs, and Bey owns this scene. It's as if she's woken from her own zombie curse, and she remains impressive for the rest of the movie.

Don Pedro Colley is also pretty terrific as Baron Samedi, playing him with just the right amount of ham. He looks the very image of the voodoo loa, which is cool because voodoo is one of the most badly misrepresented religions in movies. I'm not saying that this is a movie that Houngans and Mambos will be playing after a night at the Hounfour, but at least they got Papa Ghede right, even when he's disguised as a dock worker, a taxi driver or a scarecrow.

The rest of the cast is less impressive. Richard Lawson plays Sugar's ex-boyfriend, who happens to be the cop on the case, and he appears in a series of uninspired scenes with clunky, badly-delivered dialogue. But the scene where Sugar decides to take him off the case is hilarious.

Sugar Hill may not be one of the great horror movies of the '70s, but it's respectable and it's great fun. Too bad it's so hard to find.

Here is the theme song, Supernatural Voodoo Woman by The Originals, from Motown.