2/16/11

Abby and ‘Sugar’ Hill: The Women of Blaxploitation Horror

As February continues, I thought it was high time I mention that alongside Women in Horror Recognition Month it is also Black History Month. The combination of these two overlapping month long events gives me a great reason to talk about a couple of my favorite films. While the blaxploitation craze of the ‘70’s spawned quite a few horror films, they were primarily takeoffs on classic characters (Blackenstein, Blackula, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde). There was the occasional stray original idea like J.D.’s Revenge or Ganja & Hess, but two films stand apart to encapsulate both of February’s honored groups, 1974’s Sugar Hill and Abby. Made the same year, both by American International Pictures, both blaxploitation horror hybrids, and both put women at the center of the action. However, they show very different sides to how their titular women were portrayed, as well as the two sides of blaxploitation horror.

William Girdler’s Abby stole a note from the other takeoff films, and mixing things around a bit, sought to make a buck on the success of The Exorcist. That is, until Warner Brothers Studio sued (mostly unfairly) for copyright infringement and won. To this day, the film only pops up on low value DVDs or from gray market sources. Though it made quite a profit in its initial release, Girdler, the director of The Manitou and Three on a Meathook, never saw a dime of the profits. In Abby, Carol Speed plays the title character, the new wife of a well respected preacher. When the preacher husband's father, working as an Exorcist in Africa, releases a demon, it flies all the way around the world to find a home in Abby. Possessed by the entity, Abby goes from good girl to bad girl overnight, and if not for the help of her father-in-law (Blackula star William Marshall), she would be lost to her devilish and wicked ways forever.

The other film on the docket today, Sugar Hill, also remains hard to find though recently it has become readily available thankfully to Netflix Instant Watch. Sugar Hill was the single directorial effort from Paul Maslansky who had previously produced films such as She Beast and Castle of the Living Dead. Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (Marki Bey) is the refined girlfriend of a successful nightclub owner, but when he is killed by the local white gangsters, Diana goes back to her roots. Asking for the help of Voodoo Queen Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), the pair summon Baron Samedi who dispatches a gang of silver eyed zombies to do Sugar’s bidding. Working her way up the chain of criminals (à la Coffy), she eventually gets around to the kingpin played by Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry.

Abby and ‘Sugar’ Hill could not be more different characters, and they really show off the two sides of the blaxploitation boom. Abby, written by Girdler with his Mid-America Pictures co-founder Gordon Cornell Layne, not only riffs innocently through William Peter Blatty’s backyard, but it does so by populating the film with stock, cardboard characters and questionable stereotypes. While Abby starts off a pious woman, the film kicks into exploitative gear by making Abby’s possessor a Demon of Sexuality. So before she gets her green, glowing eye levitation and foaming at the mouth on, she gets to tramp it up a bit. This is of course put to a stop by her African costume wearing, black preacher father in law and his son.

Meanwhile, Sugar Hill scribe Tim Kelly, who also penned the Vincent Price film Cry of a Banshee, characterizes Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill as a together kind of women who is strong and confident even in the face of supernatural danger. While the film does exploit the fact that Ms. Bey is clearly an attractive woman, it mostly saves its stereotypes and exploitative nature for the cartoonishly evil whites (especially Betty Anne Rees’ vapid gangster girlfriend Celeste). Where Abby is the victim of supernatural forces, ‘Sugar’ Hill isn’t the least bit intimidated by Baron Samedi (future Dukes of Hazard actor Don Pedro Colley in an inspired performance), and even manages to turn the tables on him. Where Abby is a victim, Diana Hill is a vengeance seeker. While both women have “gone bad”, one has done it due to the control of a supernatural power and one for love.

The real difference between the two films is the imagination in the script. Abby may have been unfairly impeded by Warner Brothers’ legal department, but that doesn’t make the movie that much better. While the young priest/old priest combo is changed to a father and son and the pea soup scaled back to a yellow, foamy mouth ooze, the exorcism scenes look a little familiar though on an AIP budget. Sugar Hill actually tried to do something different by bringing the Voodoo zombie (albeit with silver eyes) into modern horror. It is impossible for me to watch the rise of the zombies without thinking of Fulci’s similarly filmed scene five years later in Zombi 2. Both films seek to connect with black history, but where Abby’s link to African lore seems disingenuous, Sugar Hill connects voodoo directly to its link to slavery, historically the religion's main route into the United States.

While both Abby and Sugar Hill are entertaining films, Abby’s entertainment value is more reliant on how outlandish and exploitative the movie is. It’s a fun flick to watch with some friends and have a laugh about it and also a surefire way to work a term like Blaxcorcist into a conversation. Sugar Hill on the other hand is a pretty well constructed horror film that remains both interesting and entertaining from start to finish. It has its share of laughable moments, but for an early seventies horror offering from AIP, it had a lot going for it. The important thing though is that they both were made. Even now there are few horror films made with female leads, and of those almost none with African American women in leading roles. (Unless you want to talk about Gothika, and who does?) So while I definitely consider Sugar Hill to be the superior of the two films, there’s good reason to watch them both to celebrate all the special events in February.

1 comment:

  1. Sir Bugg!

    Great article. I even chose it as one of my favorites from February, and included a link to it in my 5th "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

    Check it out!

    --J/Metro

    ReplyDelete

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