The inane 1993 Wesley Snipes title aside, major movie buffs know that there’s only one true SUGAR HILL, and that’s the 1974 horror-gangster action pic, at last officially released on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Pictures/Scorpion Releasing. Suffice it to say, I’m shouting out a big YAY!
Don’t know where to begin to describe this guilty pleasure that, frankly, no one has any reason to really feel guilty about. It’s everything a Saturday afternoon horror pic should be; it’s everything that distributor AIP stood for. In short, you knew what you were getting – and you weren’t disappointed.
So where to start? Perhaps with its title character and amazing lead, the extraordinary Marki Bey. I immediately fell hard for Marki Bey upon seeing her in an R-rated pre-blaxploitation (leave it to the industry to dub the successor to “race movies” with a derogatory moniker) “sex shocker” entitled The Roommates. I immediately sought out every movie Bey was associated with (like, three), and hit celluloid pay dirt when, in 1974, the trailer to SUGAR HILL unspooled in a Times Square grindhouse. “Meet Sugar Hill and her zombie hitmen…” began that narrator. And that was all you needed. The entire theater exploded in a cacophony of hoots, hollers and applause. Could anything top that trailer? Well, yeah – the actual movie. I can unashamedly say that it’s one of my favorite 1970s Bijou experiences.
First off, the plot (scripted by the prolific Tim Kelly) is genius. To meld the blaxploitation and horror genres wasn’t unique by 1974. 1972’s Blacula had opened the flood gates. But ultimately the pickings would become ludicrously embarrassing: Blackenstein, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (aka The Watts Monster), Black Exorcist (retitled Abby)…Ya get where this is going? I was truly waiting (and hoping) for the Ralph Ellison-H.G. Wells hybrid of The Invisible Man (Roscoe Lee Browne, anyone?). Why no one AT ONCE logically figured to mix the black action pics with zombie horror is beyond me. It’s an AIP natural!
Well, all things come to those who wait, and SUGAR HILL wastes no time getting down with the reel mojo: power couple Diana (Bey), a trendy fashion photographer, and Langston (Larry D. Johnson), an entrepreneurial nightclub owner, are the epitome of cool, beautiful Seventies happening folk. Langston’s Louisiana-ensconced Club Haiti is packing ’em in, due, largely to the zombie production numbers not seen since Brown and Carney. Aptly, it’s a nicely choreographed rendition of “Superstitious Voodoo Woman” that opens the picture, with the camera pulling back to show us that we’re watching sensuous on-stage dancing along with the joint’s happy patrons. The song itself is one of the movie’s stars, recorded by The Originals and released on Motown Records. The lyrics are “all that,” and feature such musical bon mots as
Superstitious voodoo woman
Celebrating the death of hate
All the tools
To put the fools
It truly can’t get much better than that – except it does, albeit in an unintentional modern sociological ironic twist, as SUGAR HILL was entirely filmed in No-Votes-For-You, Texas, the land where, in 2015, 14-year-old African-American girls at a pool party are pounded to the sidewalks by racist cops.
How hot is Club Haiti? Hot enough for the local dumbass good ol’ boy Mafia contingent to get interested. As dispatched by the slimy Morgan (the great Robert Quarry), a gang of redneck scumbags, led by the group’s one black member, the lunatic Fabulous (Charles Robinson, in a far cry from his endearing character on the cult TV series Buffalo Bill) threaten violence unless Langston sells them the thriving, jivin’ hangout. After an hilarious tirade of mutha epithets (aka, “No”), Langston is beaten to death in the parking lot. It is one of cinema’s all-time silly moments, since the morons are still wearing the same glaringly awful Seventies togs as before – only with stockings over their heads. Like there’d be TWO gangs who looked like that!
Much to Morgan’s chagrin, the club is bequeathed to Diane, christened Sugar by Langston, cause, ya know, she “looks as sweet as sugar tastes.”
And being a savvy, with-it, cool lady, Ms. Hill does what any reasonable woman would do in such a situation, especially since her ex (Richard Lawson) is the detective investigating the murder. She heads for the bayous to seek out Madame Maitresse, a 102-year-old witch to help “fix it so I can see them die slowly.”
Maitresse (an outstanding performance by Zara Cully, best-remembered as Mother Jefferson on the hit Norman Lear sitcom), bonds with Sugar’s plight and not only helps her, but conjures up no less that Baron Samedi to assist in the gruesome proceedings. Samedi, a horndog playa, is given the deluxe treatment in the picture’s standout turn by Don Pedro Colley, who, to this day, I believe to be around nine feet tall. Colley, in trademark top hat, brandishing a skull scepter and bearing undead hoes on each arm is at first angered to be disturbed. Until he eyes Sugar in her skin-tight purple pants suit. “He’s a greedy god. Got any money?” inquires Maitresse. After offering the Baron her soul, an insulted Samedi replies, “It ain’t souls I’m interested in!” And who can blame him? “He’s a great lover!” whispers Maitresse, possibly from long-past experience.
With a deal (although not the deed) done, up from the earth arise the tortured corpses of former slaves, many deceased en route from Africa – and all with shackles still dangling from their wrists and ankles. It’s a bravura moment in exploitation (and zombie) cinema.
And on with the show.
It’s here that I must discuss with high praise the contribution of Quarry, about to end his horror tenure with AIP. Quarry plays the down-home psychotic Southern Mafia chieftain with a tincture of class. He exudes authority from a couch in his apartment, adorned in a dressing gown, surrounded by his henchmen and trampy racist girlfriend (Betty Anne Rees). It’s obvious that the actor improvised much of his dialog, as he seems to be hilariously and brilliantly channeling Paul Newman’s Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, right down to a dead-on vocal impression. Mad magazine couldn’t have done a finer job.
The murders themselves are inspired set-pieces, superbly setting up the victims as totally despicable purveyors of the human condition (although, barely). Since 1974, the lip-biting joy on Sugar’s face as they scream their last has been mirrored by everyone in the audience, with the possible exceptions of members from the Greg Abbott administration. It’s also gratifying that Samedi himself gets in on the action, doubling (as the scenario demands) as a taxicab driver, disgruntled union employee, gardener, and even as a bartender in Sugar’s club (where he does literally serve up the libation he is best known for). It’s significant to note that Diana, when photographing hot models or dealing with the cops, generally displays a straight coif; as vengeful Sugar, she sports an Afro capable of getting a breathless “Oh, shit!” out of Pam Grier. It’s another lovely touch.
For me, the high point is Sugar ordering a particularly repellent thug thrown into a trough of penned starved hogs – in essence the Bey of Pigs sequence.
While Colley and Quarry are key perks, it is the awesome Marki Bey who carries the entire picture. Her defiant sneer of, “Honk, I’m passing sentence!” has been a crowd-pleaser for more than forty years, never ceasing to cause the audience to voice their rapturous approval.
There is no lag in action throughout the duration of SUGAR HILL‘s 91-minute running time. In fact, one is sorry to see it end. And suffice to say, Samedi and Sugar do arrive at a sardonic and suitable “payment” for services rendered.
The direction of SUGAR HILL is by producer Paul Maslansky, his only directorial effort. It’s a shame, as both he and the cast seemed to have been enjoying themselves immensely. Physically, it couldn’t have been a fun shoot, as the Texas temps hit near 100 degrees with humidity in the high 90s. I can well assume that the surviving participants can still smell the stench of polyester in their nostrils.
The movie was shot by Robert Jessup, who did a serviceable job. Ditto the music by Dino Fekaris and Nick Zesses, whose lively riffs can never match the jamming Originals tune. Need I say that the widescreen Blu-Ray looks and sounds excellent.
The makeup and gore effects are surprisingly effective and appropriately sanguinary. It’s behooves me what one can achieve with very little (ping pong balls for zombie eyes).
The reason I know so much about SUGAR HILL is because this Blu-Ray is a Kino Special Edition, and contains new interviews with Maslansky (who also provides a second audio track), Lawson, Robinson and, best of all, Colley.
It is Colley who enthralls us with a myriad of entertaining anecdotes, my favorite being a visit to the location by AIP legend Sam Arkoff. Colley does a spot-on impression of Arkoff, and explains how the mogul wanted to be his pal but was too short to put his arm around the actor’s shoulder and had to settle for his waist. The diminutive producer, puffing on a cigar nearly as big as himself, was, according to Colley, a classic “letch,” trying to score the throngs of on-set starlets, female extras, dancers and crew.
What’s particularly nice are the accolades paid by all to Marki Bey, warm-and-fuzzily of the genuinely-sweet-down-to-earth-person ilk. Which, of course, reasonably explains her virtual disappearance from the industry after only a few years (a career that morphed into TV, concluding with a semi-regular gig on Starsky and Hutch).
Adding to the frustration is the final supplemental credit where all are thanked, including Bey, who sadly, is the only non-interview participant. DAMN! Yet another facet to her enduring mystery.
SUGAR HILL. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA. Kino-Lorber/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc. CAT # K1661. SRP: $29.95.