Monday, August 22, 2016

SUGAR HILL 1974

70's Blaxploitation Horror Classic With Voodoo, Zombies and Marki Bey !!



"She's Sweet As Sugar...With A Voodoo Army Of The Undead !!"




   After the success of 1972's BLACULA (along with its follow-up SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) A.I.P. looked once again looked to combine Blaxploitation and horror and the result was this highly enjoyable effort. SUGAR HILL has an excellent cast going for it including the sadly under used Marki Bey in the title role, Robert Quarry and a raft of familiar 70's TV faces along with some creepy voodoo atmosphere and highly unusual (but effective) zombie make-up.
  The sole director credit for producer Paul Maslansky (RACE WITH THE DEVIL) and the POLICE ACADEMY series) and coming late in the Blaxploitation cycle, its one of my favorites of the genre and up till recently has always been a bit hard to track down. Thanks to a DVD release a few years (via the MGM MOD program) and now an excellent recent blu-ray from Kino (which thankfully restores the film's wonderful one-sheet art to the cover) it can now be enjoyed by all fans of low budget 70's horror. Plus if you add in the Gorgon blu-ray of THE ROOMATES and Code Red's CLASS OF '74 DVD you can have a Marki Bay triple feature (and I can think of worst ways to spend an evening).
   Marki plays Diana "Sugar" Hill whose boyfriend Langston (Larry Johnson) runs a voodoo themed nightclub called "The Haitian" and he's under pressure to sell out to the local mob which is headed up by Morgan (a wonderfully smarmy performance by the great Robert COUNT YORGA Quarry). Refusing to sell out he's beaten to death (or kicked to death I guess would be more apt) by Morgan's associates.




    Vowing revenge Sugar visits local voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully from TV's THE JEFFERSONS) who in a wonderfully bizarre sequence in a graveyard invokes the top hatted Baron Samedi (a scenery chewing Don Pedro Colley THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) along with his army of machete bearing zombies to carry out her vengeance. The zombies with their bulging ping pong like silver eyes and festooned with cobwebs are a striking sight. While others reviewers have described  them rather humorously, I think they're great (even if in a somewhat weirdly off-kilter way) and are one of the more evocative images of low budget 70's horror.
     SUGAR HILL borrows the same basic plot line from many of the more urban based Blaxploitation movies with white organized crime trying to muscle in on black enterprise with bloody results. Although usually embodied by Pam Grier et all, the actually protagonist against the white criminal power structure while headed up by Sugar is the zombies who are revealed to be long buried slaves and emerge from their graves still wearing shackles. Although it can be argued whether or not the filmmakers and script writer Tim Kelly (CRY OF THE BANSHEE) were going for any social and/or historical comment, but it's an interesting facet to the plot.




     Sugar and her zombies begin working there way through Morgan's organization while her ex-boyfriend Valentine (Richard Lawson SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) who rather conveniently plays a police detective begins investigating the killings. Finding a shackle at one of the crime scenes along with dead skin on the victim's skin he begins to suspect the supernatural. His police presence helps fill out the plot and instead of being pictured as ineffectual and/or corrupt as was per the norm in genre movies of the time he's shown to be on the ball and dives into the voodoo based killings with Kolchak like enthusiasm.
     Although it would have been easy enough simply have the zombies themselves dispatch each one of Morgan's lackeys, the killings themselves are each handled differently including a great scene where a mob guys is thrown to some hungry pigs (with Sugar remarking "I hope they like white trash") and a couple involving the time honored voodoo doll. SUGAR HILL was also one of the last movies to show traditional zombies from voodoo religion rather than the science gone wrong variant that was started with Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968.
     Although probably best remembered for a reoccurring role on TV's STRASKY AND HUTCH as Officer Minnie Kaplan Marki Bey made a handful of exploitation movies in the 70's and had a great sexy & striking presence and like many other actresses who worked in low budget films of the era should have gone on to a bigger career. She's really wonderful here and tears into her role with gusto as she gleefully racks up her vengeance fueled body count. It's also interesting to note that Sugar's hair is shown to be styled conventionally for majority of the movie, but she goes into full 70's afro mode whenever she invokes her zombies.




    Robert Quarry was looked at to be A.I.P's successor to Vincent Price and along with the YORGA films appeared in the Charles Manson/vampire mash-up DEATHMASTER  and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (both from 1972) and 1974's MADHOUSE. In 1980 an unfortunate car accident and later a vicious mugging derailed his career, but he went on to appear in numerous films for Fred Olen Ray. In SUGAR HILL Quarry pulls of a silky southern accent (although filmed in Texas the film is set in Louisiana) and is great here as he continually yells at his lackeys and projects an oily evilness with a touch of class.
   There must also be a shout-out given to Betty Anne Rees (UNHOLY ROLLERS) as Quarry's foul mouthed and racist mistress Celeste - and who has a great come up-pence at the film's climax.  Charles Robinson from TV's NIGHT COURT (also BLACK GESTAPO from 1975 and just released by Code Red) shows up as Quarry's right hand man with the truly great name of "Fabulous" and is the victim of a massage gone really badly.
   The character of Baron Samedi is based upon an actual god in voodoo religion and was played by Jeffery Holder in the James Bond meets voodoo/ Blaxploitation LIVE AND LET DIE from 1974 and Holder can be seen as an inspiration for Don Pedro Colley's wonderfully over the top performance here. The title track Supernatural Voodoo Women by the Motown based The Originals is a great slice of 70's R&B funk.








All Above Screen Caps Are From The Kino Blu-Ray
    




Friday, July 29, 2016

TWINS OF EVIL 1971

Superb Late Period Hammer Gothic with Twin Vampiresses & Peter Cushing !!


"The Devil Has Sent Me Twins Of Evil !"



    For the last film in their "Karnstein Trilogy" Hammer unleashed not only the best film of the trilogy, but one that stands among the best of their Gothic horrors. Dismissed by some simply because of the publicity fueled inclusion of Playboy's first "twin" Playmates, it features one of Peter Cushing's finest performances and dripping with Gothic atmosphere it's a wonderful example of Hammer doing what it did best. Sadly, though by this time Hammer's patented trappings of heaving bosoms in tight fitting corsets, shadowy candlelit rooms and mist shrouded graveyards were almost coming passé with the release of THE EXORCIST looming a few years down the road.
    Following 1970's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971's problematic LUST FOR VAMPIRE, Hammer proved with TWINS that it could successfully take the expanded use of nudity and blood (TWINS is probably one of Hammer's bloodiest) and integrate them into a compelling story. Filmed partially at Pinewood Studios (on sets VAMPIRE CIRCUS would share the following year), it was directed by Hammer one and done John Hough (and in '74 would direct HELL HOUSE) and although marred by some dodgy day for night sequences it's beautifully shot by Dick Bush (THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and DRACULA A.D. 1972).




    The inclusion of the Malta born twins Mary & Madeline Collinson, was most likely seen as a major marketing plus for Hammer as they had appeared as the first Playmate twins in the October 1970 issue of Playboy. Although one would think that this would lead to bare skin soaked vampire movie, TWINS OF EVIL is quite restrained in its use of the twins in their all their glory and does away with the "wink wink" adolescent wet-dream nude romping of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and the unintentional comedic overtones of LUST FOR A VAMPIRE. Hammer's stills and promo material for TWINS showed quite a bit more of Mary & Madeline then the actual movie does.
     Scripted by Tudor Gates, this like the previous two films in the series was nominally based upon Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and like LOVERS and LUST doesn't follow and thematic chronology in the series (although there are a few hints concerning the timeline that TWINS might be looked upon as a prequel to the previous entries).

  

     Peter Cushing plays the wonderfully named Gustav Weil who holds sway over the small village of Karnstein located in that usual vague Hammer central Europe location populated entirely by Brits. Heading up a religious organization known as "The Brotherhood", Gustav and his brethren run roughshod over the local countryside as they capture women they feel are of low moral order and/or involved with witchcraft and summarily burn them at the stake. However, things go bad for Gustav one night when he runs afoul of the local Count Karnstein (played with gleeful over-the-top evilness by Damien Thomas) who belittles Weil in front of his followers and sends him slinking home.
      Later the Count while attempting some satanic rituals in his castle (along with his lackey played by Jess Franco regular Dennis Price) revives the vampire form of his deceased relative Mircalla (Kara Wyeth - who would show up in a couple of Monty Python sketches) and without much prodding she turns the Count into a vampire. Into this Gothic brew of witch burning and vampirism Weil's two orphan nieces Maria and Frieda (the Collionson twins) arrive to stay with him and his wife played by the great Kathleen Byron (best remembered as the insane nun from Michael Powell's BLACK NARCISSUS - and sadly not given much to do in her only Hammer outing). It's immediately shown that the newly arrived twins have two distinct personalities with Frida being the more rebellious one while Maria is the more wholesome one.




     The twins enroll at the local school and the hunky male teacher Anton (David Warbeck THE BEYOND & THE ARK OF THE SUN GOD) is initially attracted to Maria, however she begins sneaking out at night for evil doings at the Count's castle and is soon immersed in the vampire world. Meanwhile Frieda is left at home to face the wrath of the increasingly violent and seemingly going slightly mad Gustav. The plot neatly uses the old troupe of "which twin is which" for its blood soaked climax.
     The film while presenting the vampires as supernatural forces of evil also shows Cushing and his followers to be almost as big threat to the community as the amount of lives bloodthirstily taken by them rivals that of the vampires. TWINS also downplays somewhat the lesbian vampire angle that permeated the first two films (although there is a breast biting sequence just for the heck of it) and as mentioned above the film while having some nudity doesn't present it as a the peep show that turned up in VAMPIRE LOVERS. The film is one of the more gorier in the Hammer cannon as the climax features beheading, an axe in the head and stakings along with some beautiful set design in the moss covered tombs and graveyards.
     Cushing is really excellent here (this was the first film he did after the death of his wife) and brings a tremendous amount of pathos to a character that while blinded by religious furor and killing people as a result of his own twisted moral outrage is still somebody that we can find sympathy for. Whether shouting down his subordinates or spitting out evil incantations, Thomas gives his vampire's lines the authority of a Shakespearean actor. It's really hard to make any acting judgement about the Collinson twins as they were both dubbed, but they both seem to carry a blank expressionless look most of the time.











Sunday, July 24, 2016

Podcast - The Whacky World Drive-In


   Thanks to a an invite from Rob Gray over at The Whacky World of Rob S Gray (which is really a cool blog, but thanks to some #!@* blogger bugs I can't link to it in my reading list) I'm going to be participating in a new podcast series he's started up. Called The Whacky World Drive-In, the first episode is up on Podomatic at this link and deals with our musings on growing up with monster stuff and being "monster kids".
   I am honored that Rob asked me to participate in this and we're both looking forward to doing future episodes. Please check it out ! We're on twitter at @driveinwhacky and the email address is whackyworlddrivein@gmail.com.