“Why are there so few films about voodoo?” asked Fiona. My theory, which I didn’t hatch until a couple of hours after the question, is that, like Satanism, voodoo is actually a bit scary. You don’t want to mess with it. When the Manson massacre occurred, a lot of people were sure it must have had something to do with Polanski having directed ROSEMARY’S BABY. In fact, apart from the first victim being a dog named Dr Saperstein after Ralph Bellamy’s character in RB, there was no connection whatever.
Voodoo is creepy as hell. But SUGAR HILL, one of only two seventies blaxploitation films so far as I know to exploit it (the other being SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) is pretty winning. It has zestful performances from Marki (THE LANDLORD) Bey, Robert (COUNT YORGA) Quarry and Don Pedro (THX 1138) Colley, and a simple, episodic plot which, like AIP’s PHIBES movies, basically breaks down into a series of inventive murders.
When Diana “Sugar” Hill’s lover Langston is killed by the mob, she seeks revenge by visiting a centenarian voodoo priestess and raising “very greedy god” Baron Samedi (Colley), who in turn raises an army of zombie hitmen — yellow fever victims of the slave trade buried in a swamp. These marble-eyed, inexplicably cobwebbed undead help her massacre gangster Robert Quarry’s crew, even the ones who had nothing to do with the original murder. They use machetes, voodoo dolls, hungry pigs (“I hope they like white trash!”) and an animate chicken claw. Yes, an animate chicken claw.
The National Association for the Slow, Shambling Advancement of Colored People.
(The actual raising of the god and the zombies is filmed in broad daylight, with added smoke machine and lightning effects, a questionable approach logically, but one which actually yields rather striking results. Otherwise, director Paul Maslansky, who started by producing Michael Reeves’ SHE BEAST and finished up with the POLICE ACADEMY series, does a proficient job with the wide angle lens and the short tripod legs.)
There’s the matter of payment for the greedy Baron — Sugar offers her soul, but he makes it clear that he’s not interested in that. Which paves the way for a sick pay-off, and Sugar’s ultimate triumph over her last enemy, Quarry’s bigoted girlfriend. “Is this in any way acceptable?” I asked Fiona. Micro-pause, then “Yeeeeah.”
As a burlesque on racial themes, the film is probably more nuanced that Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is likely to be. Baron Samedi at one point disguises himself as a yellow cab driver to lure one bad guy to his doo, and toms it up shamelessly in the role, even humming “De Camptown Ladies.” I dunno if that can be called witty, but it’s kind of funny and unexpected in an exploitation movie, as are the glimpses of labor corruption.
Marki Bey should have been a star — she acts reasonably well, but she RADIATES exceptionally, and seems to be having a ball. Fiona particularly appreciated the fact that she has a special Vengeance Suit.
For all their undoubted vices (which is what they’re MADE OF), Blaxploitation movies gave opportunities to actors who we might otherwise never have seen on the screen. Don Pedro Colley is still acting, but since the era of afros and jive, he hasn’t had a role as substantial or outlandish as this one. I mean, nobody’s cast him as a GOD…