Sunday, September 27, 2009

I get knocked down, but I get up again

TCM airs the horror/blaxploitation film:

Sugar Hill (1974)

Never cross a black woman in the 1970s. Why? Because they will put the VOODOO on you!

That’s the message contained in Sugar Hill, an American International Pictures release. If you tear up when you see the AIP logo or see the name of Executive Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff you are not alone. AIP’s special brand of low budget often grindhouse fare stretches back to the mind-1950s with It Conquered the World and The Amazing Colossal Man (also 1957’s Voodoo Woman!) and runs all the way up to C.H.O.M.P.S. and Q: The Winged Serpent. Mr. Arkoff was overseeing remakes of some of AIP’s classic films when he passed away in 2001.

Sugar Hill is an odd mishmash of things. It does have some competent actors, including the lead Marki Bey as Diana “Sugar” Hill and Robert Quarry, a character actor who has appeared in everything from The Lone Ranger and Sea Hunt, to Perry Mason, Ironside, and Quincy, M.E. But I’ll always remember Quarry as Zarlam in The Far Out Space Nuts.

It’s your standard voodoo movie plot where Sugar’s husband is murdered by Quarry’s goons (all wearing really bad, loud suits) after he refuses to sell his successful nightclub, Club Haiti, to the gangster. Sugar goes to da bayou, actually Houston locales with moss draped on the all the trees and snakes and fog everywhere. And I mean everywhere. While in Dagobah, Sugar meets with Yoda, or in this case Mama Maitresse, a tiny wizened old woman who walks with a cane and knows the old ways (see, Yoda). She’s also apparently very hard of hearing because when Sugar tries to find her in her creepy bayou home, she has to call out “Mama?” roughly 230 times.

Mama Maitresse, whose hair looks like spun sugar, agrees to help Sugar get her revenge and she works her voodoo magic to summon Baron Samedi, basically the Beetlejuice of Haitian folklore. The Baron is played by Don Pedro Colley (the hologram in THX-1138). Colley isn’t as big a personality as Geoffrey Holder was as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die but he tries his darnedest here and he does okay, though he sweats constantly in this movie.

To show you how times have changed the zombie resurrection scenes goes on FOREVER. Not the actual incantation stuff, which Baron Samedi runs through pretty quickly (and with a lot of laughing). No, I’m talking about the zombies coming out of their graves. The earth moves slowly here and there. Then a finger pokes out. Then a hand. Then we all sit around while the phony thunder and lightning keep doing their thing, and the simple soundtrack voodoo theme plays over and over. And let’s not forget that fog rolling in. We paid for the fog machine dammit, and we are going to get our money’s worth out of it even if we all choke to death! Meanwhile, the zombies are STILL slowly rising from their graves. Maybe it’s because all the zombies have crazy back-of-spoons eyes and they couldn’t see the director motioning them to RISE THE HELL UP.

Anyway, the zombie army finally rises up from their graves and Sugar Hill sets about offing all the thugs who killed hubbie. One by one they fall to her living dead A-Team. Director Paul Maslansky, later of Police Academy fame, tries to make things spooky, and he succeeds to a point, but the actual killings are pretty dull, with no real gore or any make-up effects to speak of, just blood trickling from dude’s necks. If this was an episode of Night Gallery I could see doing it that way, but for a horror/blaxploitation feature film, I think they should have increased the gore a bit. Though the scene with the mobile killer severed chicken foot had us laughing pretty hard.

One fun recurring bit was Baron Samedi popping up to lead the victims to Sugar and her zombie ninjas. He’s a chatty cabbie for one guy, Sam the bartender for another victim, and so on. He’s even Sugar’s sweaty gardener when her cop friend, played by Richard Lawson, comes snooping around. Lucky for him that Sugar keeps her Baron in check.

The film is only 91 minutes and is extremely slow paced. It would have made a much better one hour episode of Night Gallery. There really is nothing in this movie to recommend it to anyone. Marki Bey was good but she has the personality of a Charlie’s Angels guest star. She’s not terrible, but the lead in a feature needs to be more than adequate. Pam Grier really had that something extra which made her the Queen of Blaxploitation. The funniest thing about the movie is the outrageous fashions, particularly the suits the men wear. It’s not just the necktie knots that are as big as a weightlifter’s thigh, but the patterns and shades of the suits are so crazy they can actually send you to the optometrist. Dr. Samedi, perhaps?

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