sugar hill | paul maslansky | tim kelly | marki bey | robert quarry | don pedro colley | zombie | zombies | voodoo | baron samedi | blaxploitation | action | crime | united states | betty anne rees | richard lawson | zara cully | charles robinson | larry don johnson
Film: Sugar Hill
Director: Paul Maslansky
Writer: Tim Kelly
Starring: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry and Don Pedro Colley
This is a movie that I heard about pretty early on into listening to podcasts. It was one that I didn’t necessarily know completely what the story of the movie was, but I knew that it was pretty popular in the blaxploitation sub-genre. I’m pretty sure it also appeared on the Horror Noire documentary as well. I decided it would be a good time to watch for my Black Appreciation on Journey with a Cinephile: A Horror Movie Podcast. The synopsis here is when her boyfriend is murdered by gangsters, Sugar Hill (Marki Bey) decides to not get mad, but BAD! She enlists the aid of the voodoo Lord of the Dead to get her gruesome revenge.
Where we start this movie is seeing a ritual. It soon is revealed that this is at a club owned by Langston (Larry Don Johnson). He goes to the bar where his girlfriend of Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill is sitting. They get interrupted by Fabulous (Charles Robinson). He’s a local gangster that works for a much bigger person named Morgan (Robert Quarry). They want him to sell the club, but he’s not interested. When he declines and gets loud with them, he’s attacked in the parking lot when he goes to leave and left for dead.
This upsets Sugar. He was the love of her life and she doesn’t care about hers anymore. She wants revenge. She seeks out the aid of Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) who lives out of town around the estate that Sugar grew up. She is a powerful voodoo priestess. When Sugar relays what she wants to do, she questions her and agrees to perform the ritual, calling the Lord of the Dead Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley). He agrees to help her by raising the undead. She offers him her soul, but he tells her what he wants.
The two of them go about picking off one by one the crew that was behind the death of Langston. Morgan at first doesn’t realize what is happening, but the more and more his guys disappear, the higher the stakes become. He believes that Sugar will sell him the club, but he soon realizes she has something else on her mind. Things do get interesting when a former lover of hers, Valentine (Richard Lawson), who is a police detective is assigned to the case. He still has feelings for her and she seems to still care about him. He will have to suspend his disbelief of the normal world in order to solve what is going on here.
Now that is where I’m going to leave my recap of this movie. What I will state here is that this movie doesn’t have the deepest story to it and that is something that does become problematic as it goes on. That isn’t where I necessarily want to start as I think the positives to this movie are where I should begin.
The first thing would be I love this idea of the movie. As a zombie fan, we aren’t getting the traditional re-animated corpses that everyone knows about, but we’re going back to the roots of the idea with voodoo. I think the movie does something interesting here leading off with the opening sequence being that we’re seeing a ritual. It sets the tone, while also throwing off new viewers thinking that we’ve missed something. It then gives us our main character and our villains that we will be seeing throughout as well which is well done.
I want to flesh out more on the voodoo aspect of the movie, which I’m a fan of for a couple of different reasons. The earlier one is that from the Child’s Play series, the name Dambella comes up in the ritual that Chucky does to get in and out of the toy. Mama Maitresse says that name and I never realized it is the name of a voodoo god. The other aspect is the name Baron Samedi. I first learned this name from playing the video game of Goldeneye. I would go on to realize that James Bond had to deal with him as a villain. I’ve also seen this character pop up throughout different movies as one of the more powerful deities in voodoo as well. I do really enjoy how whimsical and playful Colley takes on this role.
Then really the last part of the story that I would go into here is I love the idea of this movie. Sugar seems to have grown up around voodoo as something she knows, but doesn’t practice. She has a good life. She is a successful photographer, loves Langston and they aren’t really held back by enjoying their life as black people. That isn’t to say there are some things we don’t see in their world and I mean listening to some of the characters talk with how racist they are it could be worse for them. I just love when this tragedy strikes, she doesn’t care about how it will affect her in the end, she seeks out this voodoo deity and using these zombies he raises as hit-men. It is a different take on the revenge film that works for me.
To get back to what I was saying earlier, I do think that the story could have added some depth to it. I’m good with how things play out to start and her making the decision that she does to kill these criminals. My problem is that after that, there doesn’t seem to be any stakes. Sugar never really runs into problems. She does have Valentine looking into what she does, but I think that is dealt with too easily. Morgan and his guys never really seem to have a chance to prevent Sugar from getting her revenge. We also don’t really have anything at the end where I’m worried about for her. I just feel some tension is lost by not adding an element where Sugar might not get exactly what she wants for me. I know it is front loaded for tragedy for her, but as bad as it is to say, it’s not enough for me.
I think next I’ll go to the acting. I think Bey is not only beautiful, but I love her character. The only issue is more with the writing; we don’t get to see her baseline before the tragedy. What does work though for me is that I don’t think it has ruined her. Her interactions with Valentine are probably her before the events of the movie. I do love the outfit they have her in which is a white body suit that really shows off her great body. She also brings some good sass to the character. Quarry is really good as this villainous gangster. It really fits what they’re going for when it comes to these blaxploitation films. I’ve already said that I really like how Colley plays his role. Cully is good along with Lawson. I would also say the rest of Morgan’s group, which includes Betty Anne Rees, Robinson and the like also round this out for what was needed.
Next would be the effects for this movie. The major thing I need to say here is that I love the look of the voodoo zombies. They have paint on them which I’m assuming would be like for voodoo rituals. They have fake cobwebs that worked for me, despite them not looking great. What I really like is their eyes. They have these silver orbs there which make them look alien-like and it makes it creepier. I also like the aspects of the story where lab results make Valentine question things that cause him to do research into voodoo. The cinematography is also well done, but I do have a gripe here. This is rated PG so pretty much all of the deaths are done off screen. I’m okay with a few done that way, especially for rating purposes, but I need to see something for this fully work and it doesn’t unfortunately.
Then really the last thing to go over briefly here would be soundtrack. For the most part it doesn’t really stand out, but it did fit the scenes for what was needed. It does help to build that feel they’re going for. What I really wanted to comment on would be more of the sound design. I like hearing the drums or sounds you’d get with the rituals. I also think it is effective to hear the rattling of chains that these zombies are wearing. Many were dead slaves still wearing them so I like incorporating that into the story and the movie as well.
In conclusion here, I don’t think this is a great film, but I think that it does a lot of good things. It is a different take on the revenge film that involves a woman without needing her to be sexually assaulted. I love the lore this movie is using and the creature effects do look good there. The acting is pretty solid across the board along with the use of sounds and the soundtrack for the movie. I do think the story could have used a bit more to strengthen it as well as to have some of the deaths to be on screen to bring this up for me. I still found this enjoyable and would say this is an above average movie. If they would have added more of what my problems were with missing things, it would have raised the score for sure.
My Rating: 7 out of 10