Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Final Girl Film Club - Sugar Hill (1974)

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

A blaxploitation take on zombie horror.

Marki Bey stars as the title character of this blaxploitation/horror/revenge flick, a young woman named Diana Hill, a professional photographer who's dating nightclub owner Langston. The first time they met, Langston gave Diana the nickname Sugar, because she looks "as sweet as sugar tastes".

Langston owns a joint in New Orleans called Club Haiti, which celebrates voodoo culture as part of its stage shows. Lately the lackeys of a criminal kingpin named Morgan (horror regular and Count Yorga himself Robert Quarry) have been dropping by the club on behalf of their boss, who wants to buy Langston out and take the place over. Club Haiti is clearly very successful, because a man as racist as Morgan is presented as being sure wouldn't be drawn to the theme of the club or be looking to improve it for its patrons.

Although the threat of physical danger hangs over his interactions with Morgan's representatives, he turns down the offer every time. Including the time that they notify him will be the last time.

Within minutes of giving one last refusal to Morgan's men, Langston has been beaten to death by them.

The stage shows at Club Haiti aren't the only voodoo going on around here. Sugar has a history with the religion. Heartbroken and enraged, she seeks out voodoo queen Mama Maitresse, who takes her out into the swamp for a meeting with the god Baron Samedi, keeper of the dead, king of graveyards. Sugar wants revenge, she wants to see Langston's killer die slowly, one-by-one. To help her wreak vengeance on her beloved's killers, Baron Samedi provides her with a small army of silver-eyed, machete-wielding voodoo zombies who will obey her every command.

From that point on, Sugar Hill is on a roaring rampage of revenge, having her zombies hack her enemies into pieces, feed them to starving pigs, frighten them into killing themselves... A voodoo doll is also employed at one point, of course. Sugar works her way through the ranks of Morgan's goons, building up to a showdown with the kingpin himself, unless her police detective ex-boyfriend Valentine solves the case and stops her before she achieve her goal.

When you distill Sugar Hill's elements down to a basic logline, it sounds to me like it should be one of the most entertaining movies ever made: A blaxploitation horror movie about a woman who uses voodoo zombies to get revenge on her boyfriend's killers.

Marki Bey is awesome as Sugar Hill and her army of zombies are cool, despite their silver ping pong ball eyes, but somehow the film, as brought to life by screenwriter Tim Kelly and director Paul Maslansky (who's best known for producing the Police Academy franchise), never lives up to  its potential. It's never as fun, thrilling, or interesting as it should be.

Given its year of release, the presence of voodoo and Baron Samedi, and a scene where a character is dropped into a coffin full of snakes, Sugar Hill reminds me of the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die at various points throughout its running time. If only it could compete with Live and Let Die on the awesome scale. I can't help but compare Don Pedro Colley's performance as Baron Samedi here to Geoffrey Holder's performance as the character in the previous year's Bond film, and anybody is going to seem like they're lacking in charisma and theatricality when they're put up against Holder.

Sugar Hill is moderately entertaining as it is, I just feel like so much more could have been done with the idea. I'd say it's a film that's crying out for a remake, but I would want to have seen the better version made with 1974 with Marki Bey still in the lead and its groovy theme song, "Supernatural Voodoo Woman" by The Originals, still in place. Like if executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff had screened a cut of Maslansky's movie and said, "You know what we're going to do? Rewrite the script and shoot this thing all over again."

Oh well. I can only sit back and daydream of what could have been while watching Sugar Hill as it exists, a subpar execution of a genius concept.

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