The film was shot in Houston but I’m not entirely sure where it’s set; I’m assuming it’s supposed to be New Orleans. Sugar Hill and her boyfriend run The Haiti Club, where voodoo ceremonies are part of the stage show. The place is swinging, and the white mobsters want more than a piece of the action - they want the whole club. Sugar’s boyfriend refuses, and finds himself murdered by the thugs. Sugar does what any reasonable woman in her situation would do - she goes to the voodoo priestess who lives on her seemingly abandoned family plantation and summons Baron Samedi himself.
Samedi is a wild character, with huge teeth and bulging eyes and edging right on the verge of feeling like a racist caricature. Don Pedro Colley plays him, and while his name might not be familiar to you, his credits should be - he was SRT, star of the citywide holograms in THX1138, and Negro, the black mutant in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Here he’s just going fucking nuts, giggling and shucking and jiving. He’s raising an army of the undead because he’s been promised Sugar as his wife.
And what a wife she would make. Sugar Hill might be most notable as the only starring role of Marki Bey; after this film she did some TV and apparently disappeared off the face of the Earth. She’s beautiful and tough, and she gives an actual performance in the film. Her character has the ability to go from a huge puffy afro to straightened hair to a huge puffy afro again in seemingly minutes, a superpower any blaxploitation heroine would envy. The name that’s associated with blaxploitation is Pam Grier, but looking at the striking features of Marki Bey it’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality where Grier lost out the lead role in Jackie Brown to another 1970s beauty.
If you’re going to be essentially one and done, Sugar Hill is a pretty good one to be done with. The film’s rated PG, so there’s not much by way of sexuality or violence, but the film doesn’t need it. It’s just a crazy movie all on its own; the zombies are the reanimated corpses of slaves, but besides some dust and ever-present cobwebs in their afros, they look none the worse for wear. The big special effects burst of genius on the film is that each of the zombies have weird eyes; it seems like silver ping pong balls were placed over the actors eyeballs, giving them a look that manages to be simultaneously silly and awesome. That, by the way, is probably the key thing that any good weird movie needs to have - that tenuous balance between being really silly and really awesome. It’s hard to keep that balance, especially because it’s never done on purpose. This is why hunting great weird movies is so exciting - the great ones are so very rare.
Sugar Hill is set up a lot like a rape-revenge picture, especially in that almost every kill has Sugar sort of ‘seducing’ the victims. I’m not sure what the point of this is, because she then kills them using zombies (they throw a guy into a pen full of starving giant hogs!) or magic (death by voodoo doll!) or weirdness (you’re locked in a coffin full of snakes!) or just letting Baron Samedi off them. And she really takes her time, slowly moving up the mobster chain of command, all the while making the head mobster think she’s going to sign the club over to him.
What she’s doing is toying with the guys, and as the film goes on she feels more and more like the villain of the piece. It’s weird, but you almost end up rooting for the doomed mobsters. The way the film is structured it’s obvious that nothing is going to happen to Sugar Hill, and she’s never in a tough place, which makes her the predator and the gangsters the underdog. The film throws in a concerned, groovy cop who figures out that the whole thing is a voodoo jam, but then Sugar uses magic to throw him down a flight of stairs and break his legs and he’s pretty much out of the movie altogether. That cop, by the way, is played by Richard Lawson, who would go on to play Dr. Ben Taylor in V and Ryan, the slimy tennis ball catching parapsychologist in Poltergeist. Lawson now runs an actor’s studio, but I don’t imagine that he’s showing his students his scenes as Valentine the cop from Sugar Hill - he’s beyond terrible in the film.
So Sugar Hill works her way through the entire gang, right up to the last batch. The boss’ right hand man is a totally funky black dude named Fabulous, who is pimped out in the finest (and most fabulous threads). He gets killed when Sugar Hill tricks him into getting a happy ending massage from a bunch of lady zombies (I went back and checked, and it’s only lady zombies. She killed Fabulous, but didn’t impugn his masculinity by having male zombies touch him when he was naked on a table), and then it’s time to take on the big boss.
The big boss is played by Robert Quarry, aka Count Yorga himself. This would be Quarry’s last AIP film, and he went out with a bang. His mob boss, Morgan, mostly hangs around his apartment with his incredibly irritating girlfriend, getting reports of the deaths of all his men. But his big moment comes when he and his irritating girlfriend head out to Sugar’s plantation. In the film’s big money shot Morgan goes up a spooky staircase only to find seated around a dining table all his dead minions now undead and smiling servants of Sugar Hill, who is standing to the side, smiling with a malevolent kewpie doll grin. Morgan turns to escape and finds himself in the greatest cat scare in cinema history - a black cat jumps from the shadows, startling him and he FALLS OUT A WINDOW.
Morgan’s unhurt, and he runs into the swamp behind the plantation, which is a terrible idea. He finds Baron Samedi and all the undead waiting for him, and he ends up falling into a pool of quicksand, drowning himself.
At this point the viewer wonders what’s next. Will Valentine, the detective with a black Q-tip hairdo, come out on crutches to save Sugar from Baron Samedi, who wants to claim her as his bride? Will Sugar regain her humanity by battling the voodoo god? Or will it be a downer of an ending, with our heroine paying for vengeance with her immortal soul?
It’s none of those, and it’s so much more nihilistic and awful than I could have imagined. Sugar trades the irritating girlfriend (a chainsmoking blonde) in for herself. Samedi, a touch disappointed, agrees to the deal and drags the screaming woman off into the netherworld. And the end!
What a wacky finale. Sugar Hill is a compulsively watchable movie; while there’s none of the gore or tits that mark other great exploitation films of the era (and which could have easily fit in here), the general oddness of the proceedings more than makes up for it. The voodoo zombies also feel fresh in our walking dead saturated culture. Most of all I love the idea of Marki Bey’s one at bat being such a fun and diverting movie, filled with surprisingly family-friendly meanness.
Sugar Hill is available on Netflix Instant.