Sugar Hill (1974)
1970s blaxploitation films tended to cover a lot of the same ground – Typically a black hero or anti hero fighting some form of injustice, often against evil white oppressors or criminal groups attacking a black community. There are some very good blaxploitation films, but they did tend to rely on formulas often enough.
A small number of these films tackled horror themes, and a couple did a good job. The first “Blacula” film is one of the better vampire films of the 1970s, for instance. A couple of other blaxploitation films of the period played on horror themes as comedy – The Rudy Ray Moore “classic” “Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son In Law” , is a good example of that angle.
“Sugar Hill” is an interesting take on blaxploitation horror – It’s a good combination of both the “revenge against criminal predators” storyline that is a standard of the genre, and genuine horror.
After her boyfriend is murdered by gangsters led by an evil white dude named Morgan (played by horror veteran Robert Quarry), who is trying to gain control of a nightclub he owns, Diana “Sugar” Hill enlists the aid of ancient Voodoo Queen Mama Maitresse to enact supernatural revenge against them. The sorceress summons Baron Samedi himself, who raises the reanimated corpses of dead slaves to kill Morgan and the members of his gang.
The plot is pretty simple for the most part, so like most blaxploitation and horror movies, the film’s success is measured in how effectively that simple plot is handled… And for the most part, it’s handled pretty well. Anyone that’s seen a handful of blaxploitation films will find all of the expected cliches of the genre, but what saves “Sugar Hill” is that it’s handling of the horror elements are generally effective. Baron Samedi is played effectively, if a little over the top, by Don Pedro Colley, and his legions of zombie slaves look creepy for the most part – They’re covered in cobwebs and have a grey gaunt appearance with silver reflective eyes – Although the weird eye choice is a little jarring, and silly looking at times, it’s also spooky in other scenes. There’s lots of atmospheric lighting, and fog effects to help set the mood.
And,the zombies are a creative bunch! Since they’re from the Voodoo tradition and not flesh eaters like George Romero’s monsters, these dead folks trap their victims in coffins full of snakes, chop off their heads, and feed them to starving pigs! Most of the mayhem isn’t particularly graphic, but it’s all pretty nasty business. Even the Baron’s payment – He gets to take Morgan’s bitchy white girlfriend down to the Underworld to be his sex slave, is pretty horrible when you think about it – These supernatural Creepos play rough.
So how is the film over all? It’s far from perfect… Heck, it’s far from “good”… But it is fun, and has some genuinely horrific set pieces scattered liberally throughout. There are some weird continuity mistakes – Sugar’s hair seems to magically change from a big Afro to a more styled hair do from scene to scene, and some of the acting is sub par.. I don’t know, when I’m reviewing 70s exploitation films, it seems unfair to really judge them by the acting unless it’s truly terrible, or somehow much better than normal – They’re B Movie exploitation films for a reason.
I think “Sugar Hill” is an entertaining variation on blaxploitation fare, and a rarity in horror films – A zombie movie where the zombies don’t eat people but are still scary… Or at least spooky.
I don’t give out star ratings, but if I did, I’d give “Sugar Hill” 6 Mirrored Zombie Eyes out of 10, for it’s interesting take on both blaxploitation and horror movie material.
An interesting bit of trivia – “Sugar Hill” was filmed in and around my hometown of Houston Texas. In fact, a “Voodoo Institute” in the movie is actually the Heights Branch of the public library. I used to live a few blocks away from that place.