Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Thursday, September 09, 2010

When the Doll is Inflamed: SUGAR HILL (AIP, 1974)


The rare and precious Sugar Hill is back. This AIP gem from 1974 is a wry, clever blaxploitation New Orleans zombie urban revenge film with great zombies summoned up from the swamps where they were dumped by slave ships in the 1840s; with silver ping-pong ball eyes, a dusting of gold glitter and cobwebs, slave shackles, and brandishing machetes. If not convincing or 'realistic,' who the fuck cares: they're fun and effective.

The enchanting Marki Bey stars as a sweet, sexy, witty fashion photographer Sugar Hill. When her voodoo-themed nightclub-owning boyfriend won't sell out to a bunch of syndicate thugs and is beaten to death in his own parking lot, Sugar has a motive to return to her ancestral swamp homestead and see about getting some old-school voodoo revenge. Sugar's grandmother is Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), and her demon familiar is the laughing Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who shows up in different stereotype-satirizing disguises during the elaborate juju sting operations. 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.

I love any movie where a smart take-charge woman trusts us to not be narcs or prudes and just to ride with her into the moral abyss, 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 so often happened to Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN, and which traumatizes for me weeks after seeing something like GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, as if my unconscious is led by it into a deep trough of male/self-loathing. That trough is blown up by Sugar Hill, a stone fox who puts on an endearing Morticia Adams-style thrill in her voice whenever she's moving in for the kill. 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 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 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 - I say hey, go for it, let it settle oddly in our stomachs to see a hero kill a defenseless villain in cold blood. We can handle it. Sugar knows.

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.

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 like something crosses over in her - it's magic.

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 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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