Movie Review: Sugar Hill (1974)

“Blacksploitation”, is something I’d describe more as a cinematic movement more than a genre. This is because it spans just so many genres of cinema – action films, gangster movies, science fiction films, and horror movies – and sometimes even multiples at the same time. Such is the case with Sugar Hill.

Sugar Hill follows Debra “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey),  the fiancee and business partner of Langston, who runs “Club Haiti” in an unnamed city that is implied to be New Orleans. When Langston rejects an offer by Mafia boss Morgan (Robert Quarry) to buy out the club, Langston is beaten to death by Morgan’s hoods, who are primarily white (save for one Black hood, Fabulous, who also acts fairly subservient.) In order to get vengeance, Sugar goes to local Mambo (a Voodoo priestess) Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), for the power she needs to get her revenge. She, in turn, takes her to Baron Samadi (Don Pedro Colley), who loans her the power of his army of Zombies with which to get her revenge.

From there the film basically goes into a series of vignettes where, one by one, Sugar and Baron Samadi pick off Morgan’s enforcers, before finally taking him down himself. In some respects, it’s like a slasher film where the Slasher is truly the protagonist, and there is clear moral clarity as to why their targets need killing.

The film’s pacing is lightning fast. Langston is killed within almost 5 minutes of the start of the movie, and Sugar has cut a deal with Baron Samedi within almost another 5. This conservation of storytelling also puts a lot of pressure on the cast to show their character development, and they (generally) absolutely nail it. In particular, Bey does a tremendous job of showing Sugar’s evolution as a character, going from someone who is certainly strong, but not powerful, to someone who is a tremendous force to be reckoned with. By the time her revenge plot moves into full swing, she’s tremendously comfortable with dealing death, and from there it’s clear in every second she’s on the screen that she is in complete control.

However, the actor who truly steals the show is Don as Samadi. He is clearly having tremendous fun in every scene he’s in. He has a tremendous sense of mirth behind his actions, with the implication not that he’s a Joker-style psychotic – but more that he understands the full weight of what he’s doing, these bastards have earned what’s coming to them, and he’s basically been given full license to enjoy the process due to Sugar’s desires.

Probably the one weak link in the film is Richard Lawson as Lt. Valentine – one of the detectives is working the murders of Morgan’s men, and an old flame of Sugar. He starts out a skeptic, but by the conclusion of the film, he’s developed an understanding as to the supernatural nature of these killings. However, he never quite puts two and two together and realizes Sugar’s connection to the killings. He comes close, but he doesn’t quite get it, which in the end makes him feel kind of stupid. I would have cut the writing of the character a little more slack if he figured it out, and chose not to act either out of sympathy for Sugar or through being successfully scared off.

In the latter case, it would also give Sugar some personal cost to her rise to power – the film has Sugar and Valentine considering getting back together, and having Valentine push back either because he’s scared of what Sugar’s becoming, or because he feels she’s not the woman he once loved anymore. In the former case, it would also sell Sugar’s power further, and possibly put him in the position of becoming a male equivalent of a gangster’s moll.

All in all, Sugar Hill is both a splendid horror film, one that is absolutely worth your time.

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