When I was in college I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans for the first time. I’ve since been to Louisiana many times and love the atmosphere and unique culture of the state. Though, I do admit, I was a bit creeped out during my first visit seeing a strange practitioner of voodoo skulking along the street as I waited outside of a restaurant in the French Quarter. Voodoo plays a big role in our film today, as does the sinister Baron Samedi, who has turned up in films from Live and Let Die to The Princess and the Frog. Get ready for some blaxploitation horror with 1974’s Sugar HIll.
Our story begins in the fashionably voodoo-themed Club Haiti, owned by young african-american entrepreneur Langston (Larry Don Johnson). Things are going good for him – he’s got a successful club and a smokin’ hot girl, Diana (Marki Bey), who he calls “Sugar.” Unfortunately, he’s also caught the attention of a local gangster, Mr. Morgan (Robert Quarry). He sends his thugs, led by “Fabulous” (Charles Robinson) to make an offer for the club. When Langston refuses their offer, they wait in the parking lot and bump him off.
Although Sugar has a friend named Valentine (Richard Lawson) on the police force, she doesn’t have much faith in his investigation. So, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Returning to the bayou plantation she grew up on, she enlists the help of Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) who conjures up Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) and his army of former slave zombies. They pledge to help Sugar see to it that those responsible for killing Langston pay the ultimate price for their evil deeds.
From there, Morgan’s men are bumped off one by one in bizarre ways. One guy is decapitated, one thrown into a coffin full of snakes, one stabs himself under the influence of voodoo, and one is even fed to hungry pigs. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the one who dies as result of a zombie massage gone bad. Each time, Samedi and his zombies show up to do the dirty work, with Sugar (suddenly sporting a huge afro) looking on. All the while, Sugar is leading on Morgan that she wants to sell Langston’s club but is really working her way up to the big kill.
Sugar Hill is directed by Paul Maslansky, who is probably best known for producing all of the Police Academy film in the 1980’s. This is quite a departure from those films, though his comedic side is utilized effectively in several scenes. There are also a few familiar faces from 70’s and 80’s TV on board, including Charles Robinson (Mac from Night Court) and Zara Cully (Mama Jefferson from The Jeffersons).
What makes Sugar Hill such a fun movie primarily comes down to the strong screen presence of leading lady Marki Bey. Bey also appeared in the underrated 70’s drama The Landlord. Based on this performance, she deserves a place right alongside Pam Grier. Sugar is smart, sexy and tough. She takes revenge seriously. She doesn’t just want the bad guys to suffer, she wants to see them suffer. Trust me, this is one tough lady you don’t wanna cross.
It doesn’t hurt that you have a truly vile bunch of bad guys, both white and black. Worst of all is Morgan’s mistress, Celeste (Betty Anne Rees). She is nasty, tossing out the N-word left and right – including right to Sugar’s face. You know that’s not a good idea. This leads to a wonderful cat fight sequence where Celeste brandishes a broken bottle as she goes after Sugar. She ends up getting the worst fate of all the baddies, which is just too good to spoil here.
Even with all these horrible things happening to the bad guys, as horror movies go, Sugar Hill is not all that graphic. It’s only rated PG, as a matter of fact. Still, despite somewhat cheesy makeup, the zombies are effectively creepy. The blank eyes of the zombies are somewhat crudely applied to the actors, but they still manage to be freaky. The fact that these zombies are former slaves who emerge from a swampy graveyard with shackles still dangling from their wrists also adds an extra level of discomfort for the viewer. Cap it all off with Don Pedro Colley’s playfully sinister take on Baron Samedi and you’ve got some cheaply done, but genuinely scary monsters.
There are many forgotten gems that come out of the 70’s blaxploitation genre. Sugar Hill is definitely one of them. It manages to be both scary and funny with a strong and sexy lady at the lead.