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When her boyfriend is brutally murdered, after refusing to be shaken down by the local gangsters running their protection racket, Sugar Hill, decides not to get mad, but BAD! Calling upon the help of aged voodoo queen Mama Maitresse, Sugar entreats her to call upon Baron Zamedi, the Lord of the Dead, for help in gaining a gruesome revenge. In exchange for her soul, the Dark Master raises up a zombie army to do her bidding. The bad guys who thought they were getting away clean are about to find out that they're DEAD wrong. Written by
Christopher Chase <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Crude and heavy handed but also powerful and effective
"Sugar Hill" has a lot of what made "Foxy Brown" so compelling, but adds an interesting plot device for a novel twist. I've seen lots of black gangster films where black heroes (and anti-heroes) get over on The Man and The Establishment, but "Sugar Hill" is the only film I've seen where horror monsters (as opposed to gun-play and car chases) are the vehicle for social justice. Of course, there could be others. I don't get out much. (And no, I don't count "Zombie Nightmare", which is a vanity project, not a movie.)
The heroine of the story loses her man to the predations of the local Mob when the Mob moves in on their nightclub. In order to exact revenge, she manages to contact a local voodoo cult (because in this film's social milieu, all black people in the South maintain contact with their pagan cult roots, don'chaknow) and convince them to aid her cause. Hilarity ensues.
On the plus side: the makeup effects for the zombies were novel and extremely effective - I've never seen any other film use 'brass eyes and cobwebs' effects and bluish "bad skin" tints like this. Someone did a wonderful job coaching the extras on how to be convincing as cold, soulless, remorseless, shambling piles of ex-humanity. And they are framed and filmed and lighted in setups out of your worst nightmares. The setups for each of the revenge scenes are well done, and there is a lot of variety in the scenarios, as well as some macabre humor - the 'death by massage therapy' scene managed to be both funny and appalling at the same time, which is a great trick.
Also on the plus side: The actress playing Sugar is very striking and carries the movie effortlessly. She's convincingly merciless and cold as she delivers judgment on each of her foes, and obviously relishes her revenge. The actor playing Samedi seems familiar; I think he shilled for "7-Up" some years ago. He's got a wonderful, deep, rich patois that resonates in the viewers' solar plexus. His sadistic glee and delight in the suffering and terror he inspires in his prey is enough to make you seriously considering defecting to the ranks of the "voodoun."
On the minus side: Once Sugar gets the voodoo revenge ball rolling, it's just too damned easy for her - there is no struggle, or suspense at all. In "Foxy Brown", the heroine suffers rape and beatings and humiliation before she turns the tide on her enemies, and it makes the story more compelling because of it. Even in a Jim Brown "Slaughter" film, Jim had to sweat some to win the day. For that matter, Bruce Lee took some serious hits in his various fights for justice and revenge. But here, the Mob guys are dumb as toast and go down before the voodoo onslaught like mice under a field mower.That turns the film from a heroic struggle to an exercise in righteous sadism against a bunch of mannequins.
And traditionally in films and literature, if the protagonist messes with "Dark Forces" to exact their revenge, they have to pay a price themselves. But Samedi just goes out and tears Sugar's foes apart like an obedient supernatural Pit Bull and it doesn't cost her a thing, at least not overtly. The protagonist's desire for revenge and/or justice is much more convincing if the story shows them paying a real price to achieve it. So again, the film is less than it could be; instead of making Sugar Hill's story a tale of revenge no matter the cost, it becomes an plodding exercise in vicarious power fantasy and butt-kicking.
But still, it's a powerful experience, if only due to the fortunate accident of the makeup and the charisma of the two lead black actors. I'm glad I managed to catch it on Showtime, and if I ever see it on DVD for a reasonable price, I'll probably pick it up for my collection.
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