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Sugar Hill (1974)

Kino // PG // June 23, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 20, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"Hey, whitey! You and your punk friends killed my man!"
"Y'know, you got one of the prettiest asses in town. I'd sure hate to see it kicked in for accusin' people."
"I'm not accusin' you, honk; I'm passin' sentence...and the sentence is death!"

Oh, Sugar Hill: you had me at "blaxploitation zombie flick".

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Everything's coming up aces for Langston (Larry Don Johnson). I mean, his nightclub -- Club Haiti! -- is a colossal success, and he's months away from marrying the woman of his (and pretty much everyone else's) dreams. It took a hell of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for Langston to get where he is, and he'll be damned if Morgan (Robert Quarry) and those other southern-fried mobsters are gonna snatch it out from under him. Langston refuses to sell the club for the pennies on the dollar that Morgan is demanding, so these thugs slap some pantyhose over their heads and beat him to death. His fiancée Sugar Hill (Marki Bey) isn't so much the type to sit at home and bawl about it, though. No, she wants those crackers six feet under, so she has voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) arrange an introduction to Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley): the Lord of the Dead. Vengeance comes at a price, sure, but once Sugar swears to pay up, she has Samedi's army of the undead on speed dial. With Sugar looking on and laughing, the zombies hack apart these mobsters, one by one...

Sugar Hill is just a hell of a lot of fun. Even though it's not exactly a horror flick, the movie still does a shockingly effective job establishing its eerie mood and atmosphere. The zombies have a strange, otherworldly look to them with their bulging, silver eyes, and those oversized orbs catch the light in an unnerving way at certain angles. Baron Samedi doesn't just resurrect any garden-variety corpses; he brings back long-dead African slaves as his instruments of vengeance. Considering that pretty much everyone they butcher are white sunsuvbitches, not to mention the fact that they remain enslaved even in death, there's probably a second year film student essay in there somewhere. What with Sugar Hill being released in 1974 and everything, it predates Dawn of the Dead, the film that really set the template for how zombies are expected to function. Instead, the undead here are of the more classic voodoo variety. They don't feast upon the living so much as hack 'em apart with machetes. The only bad guy that gets eaten is the one who's fed to a penful of ravenous hogs. Sugar Hill is fascinated by many different facets of voodoo rather than listlessly lobbing out one zombie attack after another, so you're also treated to some chicken-foot-fu and a fistful of voodoo dolls. Hey, why stop there either? Sugar Hill delivers everything from a cat fight in a bar to a zombie back massage. There's not a lot of the red stuff getting sloshed around, no, but it's really not that kind of movie.

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With all too many '70s exploitation flicks, you kind of have to slog through the 85% of the movie that doesn't work to get to the warm, gooey center where all the good stuff is. Sugar Hill doesn't have to be graded on that sort of curve, though. The pacing never once drags, and the subplot about Sugar's detective ex-boyfriend (Scream Blacula Scream's Richard Lawson) investigating this rash of ritualistic murders doesn't get in the way either. Much like the best slashers that'd follow a few years later, Sugar Hill's vengeful kills are inspired and varied enough that they never come across as just more of the same. Even though this wound up being the only movie that prolific producer Paul Maslansky ever directed, he has a strikingly sharp visual eye and crafts some remarkably stylish shots. Sugar Hill boasts a campy, playful tone without ever seeming dumb or overly jokey about it, and quite a bit of that is owed to Don Pedro Colley as he revels in the role of Baron Samedi. The Baron is in disguise throughout almost every single kill, careening deliriously over-the-top and painting a completely different cariacture each time. Marki Bey is far and away Sugar Hill's greatest asset, though. She's so sexy, so tough as nails, and such a compelling lead that it's kind of baffling that her film career all but ended here. It's also outstanding that Sugar is always in control. No weepy monologues. No crises. No glimmer of doubt. At every single turn, she outclasses and outmatches the mobsters, to the point that the film doen't even pretend that they're a credible threat.

Kino Lorber and Olive Films have been doubling down on blaxploitation this summer, between them bringing to Blu-ray the likes of Coffy, Foxy Brown, Truck Turner, Friday Foster, and Hammer. If I had to choose just one movie from that long list, it'd easily be the creepy, sexy, sleazy, and surreally fun Sugar Hill, which has finally gotten the special edition treatment it deserves. Though this Blu-ray disc does suffer from its share of flaws, this long overdue high-def release still comes very Highly Recommended.

This Blu-ray release of Sugar Hill is sourced from the same master used for MGM's M.O.D. DVD from 2011, and it's almost certainly the same master that had been making the rounds on cable and satellite for years before that. I can't shake the feeling that Sugar Hill would have benefitted enormously from a more recent transfer. This presentation suffers from many of the hallmarks of a master dating back a decade-plus: chunky grain, weak definition, limited contrast, and an uncomfortably digital appearance. Sugar Hill by design shouldn't consistently be sharp as a tack -- the cinematography is deliberately soft and diffused at times -- but...well, it oughtta look better than this. Okay, you might need to click on the thumbnail to see what I mean:

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Though undeniably an improvement over the standard definition release from a few years back, this 1080p presentation of Sugar Hill looks less like a shiny, new Blu-ray disc and more like DVD-and-a-half:

Kino Lorber BD (2015)MGM DVD (2011)
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The disc's less-than-stellar AVC encode contributes that much more to the aliased look of the whole thing. At least speckling and wear are kept to a minimum.

I was over the moon about MGM's on-demand DVD when I reviewed it in 2011, but this same master just doesn't hold up under the scrutiny of high definition. As thrilled as I am that MGM has opened their sprawling library to labels like Olive Films, Shout Factory, and Kino Lorber, I wish that quite so many of their masters hadn't long since passed their sell-by dates. This lackluster presentation isn't a dealbreaker, but it is a disappointment.

The opening titles of Sugar Hill are pillarboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and the remainder is faithfully presented at the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. (That goes for a few seconds' worth of optically stretched stock footage too.) For anyone keeping track at home, Sugar Hill arrives on a dual layer Blu-ray disc.

At least this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack -- 24-bit and presented in two-channel mono -- doesn't leave a whole lot of room for complaint. It's more full-bodied than I'd normally expect to hear, and pretty much every element in the mix is reasonably clean and clear. The dialogue stems don't show their age too much either. A solid effort all around.

There aren't any dubs or subtitles this time around, but an audio commentary is riding shotgun.

I had no idea that Sugar Hill was getting the special edition treatment, but I guess that what happens when Scorpion Releasing jumps into the fray.

  • Audio Commentary: Nevermind the more than forty years that have passed since Sugar Hill first stormed into theaters; director Paul Maslansky remembers it all as if the film had been shot last Thursday, and his detailed comments and generally engaging personality make for an absolutely essential listen. There are entirely too many highlights to list, but if I had to pick a few: Sam Arkoff's seemingly insane habit of screening two films simultaneously, everything you wanted to know about those spray-painted ping pong ball eyes but were afraid to ask, the mild confusion of Fox releasing a film with the same title years later, and getting stiffed on profit participation points. Maslansky does a phenomenal job painting a picture of the independent scene in the post-Easy Rider years, and if you're curious what Sugar Hill's budget was, how long the schedule was, and how much studio work was involved (spoiler: none), it's all answered here. Scorpion's Bill Olsen does a wonderful job spurring on conversation without dominating it as he sometimes has in other commentaries. Well-worth a listen for sure.

  • Interviews (65 min.; HD): This Blu-ray release of Sugar Hill also boasts on-camera interviews with director Paul Maslansky and three of the film's lead actors.

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    First up is a fifteen minute conversation with Charlie Robinson, and even with as many times as I've seen Sugar Hill over the years, I had no idea that was Mac from Night Court in those flashy duds until just now! Robinson notes that he was originally asked to cast the movie, and he lobs out a slew of terrific stories about the other folks sharing the camera with him, most memorably the generosity and support of co-star Robert Quarry. Robinson made just as much of an impression on his fellow cast members, with Richard Lawson making it a point to rave about what an underappreciated actor he is. Lawson devotes the bulk of his fourteen minute interview to reflecting on the cast of Sugar Hill while also noting the light atmosphere on the set and his own familial history with voodoo. Clocking in at nineteen minutes in length, Don Pedro Colley scores the longest of the disc's interviews. The sprawling list of highlights encompasses everything from the rise and fall of blaxploitation all the way to what a lech Sam Arkoff was. There are a lot of really terrific notes about what Colley brought to the role of Baron Samedi as well as how the Lord of the Dead got some scares off-camera. Although some of what director Paul Maslansky says in his interview has already been addressed in the disc's audio commentary, there's still plenty to appreciate here, such as a primer on how to wrangle zombies.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): A high-def trailer rounds out the extras.

The Final Word
A blaxploitation zombie flick: c'mon, as if you need any more of a review than that. Sugar Hill really is every bit as much of a blast as it sounds, to the point where I'd even argue that it's the standout release among the massive wave of blaxploitation swarming onto Blu-ray this summer. Though the aging master dusted off for this disc is a bit of a letdown, the two and a half hours of newly-produced extras go a long way towards making up for that. Highly Recommended.
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