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June 18, 2015

Sugar Hill

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Paul Maslansky - 1974
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Should I feel guilty about enjoying Sugar Hill? Maybe. It seems like no one involved could remember that the title is a play on the Harlem neighborhood of the same name. I did enjoy seeing several "blaxploitation" movies back when they were new. The one development that did bother me was that as Hollywood realized that there was a niche audience hungry to see black faces on the big screen, that same audience didn't seem to pay attention to what was going on behind the camera. Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmakers who more or less invented the genre, were replaced by aging white directors like Gordon Douglas and Henry Hathaway, or relatively new film school grads like Jonathan Kaplan. Paul Maslansky had been around for about a decade, making a name for himself as a producer, when he made his first and only effort as a director.

We have Diana "Sugar" Hill, the girlfriend of a guy who runs Club Haiti, where white people come to watch a mock voodoo show. A gangster wants to buy out Club Haiti, but it's not for sale. The boyfriend gets killed by some mobsters who get their duds from "Pimps 'r' Us. Sugar wants revenge and seeks out an old voodoo priestess who brings out a legendary voodoo priest, Samedi, from the ether. Samedi wakes up a small gang of dead slaves, zombies, who do most of the dirty work on behalf of Sugar Hill. The bad guys end up killed each in a unique way, one as the meal for some very hungry pigs. Sugar gets her revenge. Samedi goes back to the ether, with the chief gangster's very white and very racist girl friend carried away in his arms.

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This is a very PG rated horror movie. The violence usually involves a few trickles of blood. The sex consists of some shots revealing Marki Bey's cleavage. What would probably shock anyone not familiar with the blaxploitation genre is some of the racially charged language. It's no accident that as the head bad guy, Robert Quarry speaks with a Southern accent. Sugar calls her first victim "Whitey" and "Honky". There is the one black bad guy with the pimpadelic wardrobe, and name to match - Fabulous. What is curious is that when she's relaxing, or working as a fashion photographer, Sugar's hair is straight. While directing her "zombie hit men", Sugar has a big afro.

In his commentary track, Paul Maslansky never explains why he only directed one film. He gives credit for some of the look of the film to cinematographer Richard Jessup. Visually, the film was done economically, partially for budgetary reasons, but much of the action is filmed using lateral tracking shots and traveling shots, with little need for cross-cutting. The horror movie vibe is provided with the use of a fog machine and lots of spider webs.

Marki Bey, perhaps best known for a supporting turn in Hal Ashby's The Landlord plays the title role. Don Pedro Colley owns this film as the voodoo priest, Samedi, with his booming voice and hearty laugh. In top hat, and black jacket and pants, he's also the best dressed character here. It's no stretch to believe that this guy maintains a harem in the afterlife.

In his commentary, Maslansky provides a few moments to his first credited film as producer, Castle of the Living Dead, as well as his most prestigious film, The Russia House. And say what you will about the Police Academy series, Maslansky produced the first films directed by Walter Hill and Michael Reeves. Maslansky also has an one camera interview as do actors Richard Lawson, Don Pedro Colley and Charles Robinson, recalling what it was like when blaxploitation was often the only professional opportunity for black actors.

Posted by peter at June 18, 2015 09:25 AM