Thursday, September 09, 2010

When the Doll is Inflamed: SUGAR HILL (1974)


The rare and precious New Orleans-set 1974 blaxploitation voodoo classic Sugar Hill is back, baby, and beautiful. So bring on the voodoo doll leg cramps, snakes, and human-hungry pigs ("Hope they go for white trash!"), it's time to wreak it, whatever it is you got on your vengeance plate. This is one N'awlins dish served so cold it doesn't even have a pulse.

A zombies vs. mobsters revenge film that knows how to take it easy and enjoy cutting up deserving honkies, one of the best aspects of the story is its basic simplicity and its amoral savoring of blood-curdling revenge. Marki Bey stars as Sugar, the sweet, sexy, witty fashion photographer. After her voodoo-themed nightclub-owning boyfriend won't sell out to a bunch of syndicate thugs, Sugar has probable cause and motive to return to her ancestral swamp homestead to her grandmother, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), for help getting revenge. And not the kind where she gets evidence or tracks down the leader, but he kind where she kills every damned member of the syndicate responsible, one at a time, savoring every death. Maitresse's demon familiar is the laughing Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who agrees to help, raises a flock of zombies from the swamps out back behind Mama's house, and then shows up in different stereotype-satirizing disguises during the elaborate juju sting operations. The deeper Sugar and the Baron go into their cake walk-style display of how genteel black folks ought behave, the more relish they seem to feel when they flip their cards and behold whitey's inevitable display of raw terror. Great economical, often comical touches abound: the zombies are dead slaves dumped into the swamps by slave ships in the 1840s on their way into the harbor. Wearing silver ping-pong ball eyes, a dusting of gold glitter and cobwebs, and slave shackles, brandishing machetes and big evil grins, they aren't necessarily convincing or 'realistic' whatever that means, but who the fuck cares: they're fun and effective and they seem to be having a good time. That's the Big Easy recipe and it's goddamned delicious.

I love any movie where a smart take-charge woman trusts us to not be narcs or prudes about rooting for horrible black-on-white violence, and just to ride with her into the moral abyss, gleefully smiling as justice is served at the end of a blade, especially if she's smart and badass enough that I don't have to worry about her getting beat up, sexually assaulted, imprisoned, outsmarted, or turning soft at the last minute, etc. as she chases her quarry. Such dehumanizing ordeals often happened to Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN, for example, or THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTO. The deep trough of self-hated misandry such films inspire is blown up by Sugar Hill, a stone fox who puts on an endearing Morticia Adams-style thrill in her voice, almost like a satiric impression of the way posh white people talk, to the point she seems almost on the verge of cracking herself up. Whenever she's moving in for the kill, though, that slow smile plays around her cute cupid face, and Colley's eyes widen as he roars with macabre Geoffrey Holder-ish delight.

Yes, it's great to be able to root for a murderous voodoo priestess and not have to worry she's going to develop a conscience thanks to burgeoning love for a dashing black homicide cop, a guy who's so clueless he genuinely believes locals will want to help him find whoever's doing the killing, even though the victims are the same mobsters who've been plaguing their community for years. Wake up, fool! But hell, Mama and Baron needn't worry, Sugar's not going to let no ex-boyfriend cop spoil her (and our) good time. Yes, it's great to be finally rooting for a murderous voodoo priestess and not have to worry she's going to develop a conscience or let love for the investigating black cop weaken her resolve.

You know the deal. You know what I mean. Someone like Jodie Foster in THE BRAVE ONE, by contrast, is a one-woman vengeance machine, yet she isn't enjoying herself, and yet some dopey cop wants to stop her because, um, it's wrong... it's not the law? And then it ends in a big showdown when she's about to shoot the bad guy in cold blood like he deserves and the lame ass cop is all "Listen to me, Sugar! It's not worth it! Let justice take it's course!" So she puts her gun down and turns her back and has to wait until the bad guy suddenly stops cringing and whips a pistol out of his ankle you know, they don't send a pro-vigilante message to today's impressionable youth. Or show their lead in a bad light, or when all is over with she starts crying hysterically in her man's arms, or some second-guessing cop-out to the patriarchy like that.

Then there's the element of some revenge films I think of as 'inequal distribution', wherein a woman is traumatically assaulted and the assailants spend the movie doing more evil, and finally they just get shot at the end, Bang, the End. So what? That's an imbalance of pain to pleasure for me the viewer because seeing someone get shot doesn't carry the same cathartic charge as seeing them beaten up for ten minutes and then shot, or eaten by starving pigs, or thrown into a tub of snakes or hacked up by zombies. I much prefer the reverse: Let the syndicate crime boss kill your man real fast in the beginning, and then spend the whole rest of the movie kicking the crap out of his whole crew, working your way up the chain, EC comics style until you get to the bigwig at the top (Count Yorga's own Robert Quarry).

SUGAR HILL hears my plea... for instead of just honky evil we get a series of comic book style death traps involving zombie massages ("Treat me easy, easy,"), attack of the severed chicken foot (a peak AIP moment), burning voodoo dolls ("When the doll is inflamed you will pick up the knife and use it on yourself!'), and so forth. Marki Bey's not the best actress in the world, but she sure knows when to kick back and luxuriate in the power of a zombie army at her disposal, it's gorgeous to see. Her pixie face lights up with mischief as her grandmama cackles silently behind her and the Baron roars.

How lucky AIP still has gems like this floating around in the air still unseen by so many of us (also seek out CULT OF THE DAMNED).  I hope Halle Berry sees it one day, because after the mousy way she ruined Storm (in X-MEN) and Catwoman, she should be forced to watch the ballsy brilliance of Marki Bey in this film at least ten times. Bey's no taller than Berry and has an even smaller nose, but can order around whole rooms full of zombies, gangsters or cops and make it work without ever being anything but super cool, super sexy and the smartest person in the picture. In fact she works it so well it took me awhile to even notice it! Sure, Zamboona never fails, and sure, Coffy may be the color, but Sugar Hill's got the soul, and all the silver painted balls.


  1. Man, I've been wanting to see this since it reared its head on 42nd Street Forever Volume 2. It's definitely going to be featured in this year's 31 Days of Horror.

    But I must admit an ultier motive for posting, as someone who's written about Leo's need to lighten up, what make you of Strutting Leo?

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