Psychotronic Ketchup: Sugar Hill (1974)

Director: Paul Maslansky
AIP, 1:31, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

You jive turkeys won't believe this, but I have been seeing a lot of "blaxploitation" films lately. True, ever since I started the Psychotronic Ketchup project, I have been watching films in many genres that I normally avoid, like that passel of generally cruddy biker films I bundled up into one weekend about a year ago. And I've never really avoided "blaxploitation" flicks anyway. I am fairly well-versed on Blacula, Slaughter and the Pam Grier epics -- and even a little Dolemite for good, stupid measure. But recently I have been -- I don't know if "treating" is the correct term, but what the hell -- treating myself to their like far more regularly than I used to do.

This course now brings me to Sugar Hill, a film which I probably would have watched anyway given that it involves zombies. Not the Romero type of living dead, mind you, but the original things -- VOODOO zombies. Not voudoun either, the real religion from which the popular notion of voodoo stumbled like a victim on fugu poison, but good ol' fashioned, silly movie voodoo. The filmmakers even take a character from the most recent James Bond flick at that time, Live and Let Die, and appropriates him for their own nefarious purposes. I am not sure if Baron Samedi is an actual popular character in voodoo myth, or if he was created wholesale for the Bond film, but here he is -- booming laugh, scary fashion sense and all -- making things miserable for those who would bring harm to his eager-for-revenge patrons.

But in Sugar Hill, Samedi isn't played by Live's marvelous Trinidadian 7-Up pusher, Geoffrey Holder, the multiple Tony Award winner. Instead, Don Pedro Colley gives an almost equally intriguing turn in the role, demolishing all who would usurp him on the screen with a lascivious sneer and burning eyes, as he summons his zombie corps to do his bidding. (He also apes Holder's version to a certain measure, approximating that basso laugh for all he's worth, which is about halfway there.) Colley seems to have acted in just about every memorably cheesy TV show from the sixties into the nineties, and just as those appearances probably didn't serve him to the extent which his talent probably deserved, neither does he have nearly enough screen time here. For the few scenes which he does have, I found him magnetic.

He's matched here in watchability by Marki Bey, as the titular character, though the impulse to seek out her performance should only be due to her general foxiness, and not her acting, which tends to waver here and there depending on the intensity of the scene. (There might be a very good reason why she only appeared in a handful of films.) "Sugar" is only a nickname, given to Diana Hill by her fiancé who, in order to give the movie some semblance of a plot, is murdered by Mafioso led by Count Yorga -- er, I mean the guy who played the Count -- Robert Quarry. Sugar seeks out a voodoo woman named Mama Maitresse, who magically hooks Sugar up with "voodoo god" (as she says) Baron Samedi... and all of this is merely so we can get a good solid 90 minutes of zombie action. Well, also so Sugar can get into a ridiculous catfight with a skeezy redhead mistress of Quarry's, which never goes as far as it should to keep our continued interest. But mainly, this film is about the zombies.

Let me enter into this paragraph speaking as someone who is still creeped out by Sleestaks. Zippers up the backs notwithstanding, as a kid growing up in Alaskan winters half-marked with darkness in any hour where I wasn't at school, having to walk home through the woods alone, I deeply believed in every monster that I saw. It didn't matter. This was mainly because I kept stupidly watching scary shows (on late night TV, nonetheless...), when I clearly couldn't handle them emotionally. And then I would have to go to the bathroom, but I would be too scared to make the short distance from my doorway to the toilet, and I would stand there staring into the darkness until I either passed out or convinced myself that the monsters were otherwise distracted. Once, I even peed in a cardboard box and flung it towards the front door, planning to take it out at morning's first light before my mother awoke; more than once I would pee in a glass and pour it down the sink later.

These zombies -- the Sugar Hill zombies -- would have made me crap my pants in those bygone childhood days. Covered in cobwebs, a shuffling gait, grasping hands or fingers gripping machetes, bulging eyes that betray no sense of a pupil, just ghostly, unrelenting whiteness... I would squarely not have been able to handle them. Nowadays, while I have certainly seen a thousand things more eerie or frightening by this point, I can still well up that feeling of my youth, and recognize the image of these zombies as being something quite cool and scary. I would suggest to anyone even partially interested in the history of zombies on film to at least check out the attack scenes in this film for some contrast. Their design is marvelous, and their gruesomeness in these scenes is carried off fairly well.

Would that the remainder of the running time excelled in even the smallest measure. Quarry seems highly bored by the filming, Bey, as said, is merely adequate but cute in a variety of far-out fashions, and the remainder of the actors (outside of steady Richard Lawson as police detective, and old Sugar flame, Valentine) are wholly unremarkable, sometimes even awful. The supernatural scenes have some decent mood, but outside of this, the film is stiff. Once the initial premise is set up, there are no surprises to be had at all. And in a genre like blaxploitation, which at least, even in the wildest of scenarios, could still makes the eyes spring out with crazy, left-field incidents, this is a shame. This one had some real potential, especially given that the zombie parts (which you'd think would be the hardest part to pull off) are so solid. Clearly, not everything is so sweet on Sugar Hill, and neither am I.


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