Sugar Hill (1974)
“Meet SUGAR HILL and her ZOMBIE HIT MEN…The Mafia has never met anything like them!”
Director: Paul Maslansky
Cast: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Don Pedro Colley
Synopsis: When her boyfriend is brutally murdered, after refusing to be shaken down by the local gangsters running their protection racket, Sugar Hill, decides not to get mad, but BAD!
There can’t be that many Blaxploitation voodoo-zombie horror flicks In the world, so it’s something of a surprise that the unimaginatively named Sugar Hill isn’t better known. Of course, that might be down to the fact that it’s not particularly good, even by Blaxploitation standards — although that hasn’t stopped other black horror movies such as Count Yorga and Blacula from earning a certain degree of fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view). Although the acting and storyline are both seriously lacking, Sugar Hill does at least boast some effective make-up for both the zombies and the charismatic voodoo lord Baron Samedi.
Set in New Orleans, the story opens at the popular Club Haiti which is owned by Langston (Larry D. Johnson), a suave chap with a taste for glittery suits with wavy lapels who is in a loving relationship with the eponymous Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill, played by Marki Bey, who delivers a remarkably variable performance — either spot on or way off the mark. Langston’s club is so popular that it’s attracted the attention of local white mobster, Morgan (Robert Quarry). Trouble is, Langston isn’t selling no matter how sweet the deal or how intense the intimidation, so to speed negotiations along Morgan has his right hand man Fabulous (Charles P. Robinson) and his goons beat Langston to death, figuring Sugar will be an easier proposition to deal with. Now, anyone who’s seen a movie in which the lead is a sassy black lady knows full well that Morgan’s just blundered in a big, big way. Sugar isn’t the kind to roll over for any bully who fancies some of what she’s got, and is so incensed by Morgan’s brutal murder of her boyfriend that she calls upon centenarian voodoo ma’am Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) to help her exact a particularly vicious brand of revenge.
Mama Maitresse leads Sugar deep into the swamps to a slaves’ graveyard dating back to the mid-1800s, and it’s there that Mama calls upon legendary voodoo god Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) to make an appearance. After finally being persuaded to show once Sugar coughs up a necklace and a gold ring, Samedi cuts an imposing figure in his shabby tuxedo and top hat, and carries a skull-tipped walking cane. He has a mouth full of grubby gold teeth, wild eyes, a booming laugh that frequently veers dangerously close to mwaah-har-har-har territory, and his sudden appearance would have most of us stumbling off into the nearest pool of quicksand in a blind panic, but Sugar’s made of sterner stuff than we mere moviegoers (which is why she’s up there doing it, while we’re down here watching…), and Samedi finds her sassiness somewhat appealing. So, after hearing of her desire for revenge, Samedi summons up his zombie slaves from their burial places, and these guys are even more impressive than their master. With their expressionless faces masked with a thin veil of cobwebs, and bulging silver orbs for eyes, they’re not your conventional modern-day zombies. With no desire for human flesh, they shuffle around like clockwork toys, evidently waiting for someone to prod them in the right direction, but once instructed what to do they set about their allotted task with an admirable single-mindedness of purpose against which even a hail of bullets proves useless.
Sadly, it’s at this point in the movie, just as things should be taking off, that the story splutters and dies. Sugar wants revenge on the men who killed her boyfriend, so we’re shown each of those men receiving their just desserts. The trouble is, their deaths are both conceived by writer Tim Kelly and executed by director Paul Maslansky with such a lack of imagination that they quickly become repetitive and dull. The level of horror isn’t much greater than, say, a 1950s Hammer movie, and the ‘horrific’ deaths, which largely take place off-screen, include such non-voodoo fates as being eaten by hungry pigs or stuffed into a box full of snakes. By the time Morgan finds himself stumbling around the bayou swamps bereft of all his goons, the movie has pretty much exhausted our sympathy for Sugar, who seems to take a little too much pleasure from all these murders. Clearly, she’s more easily pleased than me…
(Reviewed 14th October 2013)