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Review: Sugar Hill (1974)

Best known as the producer of the Police Academy franchise, Paul Maslansky produced a wide range of films including Raw Meat aka Death Line, Race With the Devil and Damnation Alley. He also directed one movie, AIP’s blaxploitation/horror hybrid Sugar Hill. Working from a script by Tim Kelly (Cry of the Banshee, Black Fist) he made his one directorial credit an enjoyable one.

Langston (Larry Don Johnson, Street Tales of Terror) is beaten to death for refusing to sell his nightclub. His girlfriend Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey, Class of ‘74) is heartbroken and wants revenge. Since she isn’t Pam Grier and can’t do it herself, she goes to see Voodoo Priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, The Jeffersons, Darktown Strutters).

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She arranges for her to meet Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley, THX1138, The Dukes of Hazard). He agrees to use his powers, and his army of zombies against Morgan (Robert Quarry, Count Yorga, Vampire, Dr. Phibes Rises Again) and his mob. But The Baron’s help comes at a high price.

Granted, Sugar Hill gets off to a rough start. Langston is dead within minutes of the film’s opening scene, so you don’t get much feel for his relationship with Sugar. And his death scene is one of the worst choreographed fights I’ve seen. But once the plot gets moving, things get better fast. When Sugar offers Baron Samedi her soul, and he tells her “It’s not your soul I’m interested in” I had to grin. There’s a spirit I can relate to.

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The scene where his zombies rise, some still wearing the manacles and chains they wore as slaves, is effectively unsettling. I should add here these are old school, pre-Romero zombies. They don’t eat people, but they’ll kill if commanded to do so. They have a unique look, dead pupilless eyes, bodies covered in dirt and cobwebs that set them apart from other walking dead.

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Having Sugar’s ex, Valentine (Richard Lawson, Poltergeist, Streets of Fire) as the cop investigating the killings adds a bit of spark to the usual puzzled police subplot. Unfortunately, the whole film needed a bit more spark to it, though. Unlike the straight crime blaxploitation films, Sugar Hill was obviously made for a PG rating. The killings lack blood despite people being beheaded, fed to pigs, etc. And despite Bey’s looks, there’s no nudity. It’s an exploitation film without the exploitation elements.

What is shocking watching it now is the open racism many of the characters express. Granted they’re the bad guys, but it’s still surprising watching them casually drop the N word while Fabulous (Charles Robinson, The Black Gestapo, Grey Lady Down) stands there shining Morgan’s shoes.

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I do wish American International hadn’t decided Sugar Hill was meant for the kiddie matinées. With a bit more edge, it could have been a standout in its genre. Baron Samedi could easily have become a recurring character like Blacula. Only in his case, he wouldn’t be a white creature shoehorned into black culture.

Still, as 70s horror goes, Sugar Hill is an entertaining flashback. And it can still hold its own against modern films like Tales From the Hood 2. It’s available to stream on Shudder and other services.

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