Monday, February 25, 2013

Sugar Hill (1974) dir. Paul Maslansky

Logline: After her man is murdered by a group of white gangster businessmen for refusing to sell them his voodoo-themed nightclub, Diana "Sugar" Hill (Marki Bey) casts aside her disbelief in order to summon some supernatural revenge against the racist killers with the assistance of Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), voodoo lord of the dead, and his gang of merciless zombie minions.

Another American International Pictures/Samuel Z. Arkoff production, Sugar Hill is in almost every way a typical revenge film. It presents a belabored progression of one-by-one murders, with only the methods varying, supported by a moral certitude that runs unquestioned throughout the film, despite the fact that this certitude results in helpless schmucks being coldly murdered while whimpering for the preservation of their lives. Being typical and formulaic, Sugar Hill doesn't allow us to think too hard about the moral quandaries it necessarily poses, but that's because its filmmakers clearly don't want us to recognize them in the first place: they want us to enjoy the uncritical catharsis of seeing The Man get his. And because Sugar Hill is a quite well-made typical revenge film, we do enjoy it. Moreover, putting aside the recognizable ordinariness of its plot and story progression allows us to see that the film is bolstered by a relative wealth of delectable supernatural touches that set it apart from the slew of other revenge films littering the cinemas throughout the 1970s (including a not inconsiderable number of them falling under the blaxploitation banner, the foremost examples being Jack Hill's Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974)). Bullets and bare-knuckled brawls are traded in for fog-coated swampland, cobwebbed zombies with bugged-out brass eyeballs, and Baron Samedi's mischievous cackle disappearing into the night. If not an alteration of the revenge film's foundations, Sugar Hill at the very least offers an unusual and (literally) spirited take on the familiar tale.

The film does deal with issues of race throughout, though never extensively or critically. Because it's a simple revenge tale, its villains are all unambiguously villainous and racist (and are also, barring two interesting exceptions, all middle aged white men). They call our protagonist a "black bitch" and her murdered lover a "dead nigger." They punch and abuse their black employees while condescending to the rest: Morgan (Robert Quarry), the gang's leader, tells one of his main thugs (the only black man he has allowed to rise to this station) that he'll "make an honest negro" out of him yet. Worst of all is Morgan's girlfriend, Celeste (Betty Anne Rees), who makes her racism apparent by refusing to serve a black person a drink but all too willing to smash the bottle over that same person's head. So Sugar Hill's desire to exact revenge against these murderous and hateful creeps isn't without cause, but her actions in doing so are dealt with in too shallow a manner to offer any interesting critique or commentary about race or the nature of vengeance. She invokes dark forces to get the job done, but is relieved of having to pay any material or spiritual price for the help. (In making an almost-clever joke out of the racist fear, the film ends with the sexuality-oozing Baron Samedi carrying off the helpless-- and helplessly racist-- white girl to the underworld in place of Sugar.) More importantly, Sugar facilitates the murder of a number of weeping men and is changed not at all by her decision or the experience of watching them die before her eyes: she remains cool, collected, unflinching, dare we say superfly after each notch added to the body count. Upon her revenge's completion, she fully intends to return to her life as it was before this whole mess, unpunished and only vaguely suspected by the authorities. She may even choose to explore her new budding romance with the charming cop she had to push out of the way (and down a flight of stairs by way of a voodoo doll) when her bloody business was preoccupying her thoughts and time. (How soon dead lovers-- those whose memory is fought for-- are forgotten! O, most wicked speed!) There's much to enjoy about the film on a technical level (cinematography, performances, music, make-up and costuming are all top notch for this sort of low-budget genre offering), but thematically it's all a little too black and white.

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