Michel Levesque's Sweet Sugar (1972) is a movie with a split personality. On the one hand it plays out like a weird attempt at a spoof of Women-in-Prison flicks, with a staff of guards who come off more like bumbling teens in an 80s sex comedy than the sadistic keepers they're meant to be, an eccentric but largely ineffective warden-cum-mad scientist, and a two-dimensional heroine as quick with a sassy double-entendre put-down as she is to drop her top. On the other hand, the oddball comedy of the guards and summer-camp camaraderie of the girls is punctuated by sick ideas and gore scenes that are less shocking for their presentation than for their stark incongruity in tone. As a result the whole is not really equal to the sum of the parts, but those parts are kind of interesting in their own right and keep the flick from being a complete waste.
As the film opens, our heroine Sugar (Phyllis Davis of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls ), who is either a prostitute or just a super-aggressive girl who knows what she wants, is bringing a prospective john/pickup back to her apartment for a little slap and tickle. Her male companion fends off her advances and laughs in heavily Spanish-accented English, "Can't you keep your hands to yourself, Sugar? There are more important things in life than sex!" Sugar raises an eyebrow and challenges, "Name three." Yes folks, that's our girl!
Unfortunately Sugar has been a little careless in selecting her bar pickup--not Diane Keaton-careless, but still. Providing her with a big fat spliff and then excusing himself to the powder room, Sugar's male friend quickly returns with the vice squad in tow, who promptly arrest her for possession of illicit drugs and an outstanding rack. These are serious offenses in the unnamed Latin American country we find ourselves in, and after rejecting the police chief's offer of tat-for-tit, Sugar's only chance of staying out of prison is to agree to work in the government-owned sugar cane fields as unpaid labor. The irony of a girl named Sugar being sentenced to cut cane for two years is--dare I say it?--delicious.
Next thing you know Sugar and a group of other wayward girls are loaded into the back of a flatbed truck for transport to the sugar plantation, all to the strains of an earnest title-track theme song of the sort we just don't get enough of these days, imo. Along the way she meets fellow female ne'er-do-wells Simone (Ella Edwards), a sassy black hooker with attitude, and Dolores (Pamela Collins), a 17-year-old blonde bombshell of a virgin who has basically been sold into slavery by her old man. The girls get their first taste of what life on the plantation will be like when a wide-eyed innocent tries to escape the truck, only to be brutalized by the guards, who then make as though to rape her. But Simone, possessing the heart of gold her profession obviously requires, steps in to lure the lecherous lugs away and jumps on the...um, grenade? in her stead.
Once at the plantation proper we meet the guards who will be watching over our girls: old hand Max (Albert Cole, who looks and acts like All in the Family-era Rob Reiner) and new kid Ricky (James Houghton). It's here we get to see the beginning of the movie's somewhat tiresome running gag, as Ricky, who has apparently never seen a "women in chains" movie before, behaves like a bashful, lovestruck teenager on getting his first look at Sugar, and tells Max he'd "really like to get to know her." Similarly unclear on the whole sadistic guard/helpless captive relationship, Max sets about peddling a variety of products to Ricky he guarantees will win over the ladies and make him a man.
Not unclear on the concept at all are head guard Burgos (Cliff Osmond) and plantation boss Dr. John (Angus Duncan). Burgos is a disciplinarian of the old school, not above checking the new recruits' teeth as if they were horses nor whipping them when they get out of line. Dr. John doesn't wield his authority quite as strongly (an early scene where he propositions Sugar from his bubble bath starts out promisingly, with the good doctor boasting, "I know the secrets of UNDREAMED-OF pleasures!"--but when she refuses he merely pouts and sends her away in a huff), but makes up for it with his interest in ethnopharmacology (the study of traditional tribal remedies to see if they have modern application), which sets the stage for some subsequent mad-science flavored goodness.
The rest of the movie plays out along the well-worn path of WiP flicks, with the girls alternately catfighting one another and bonding in opposition to oppression. Sugar cements her hero status by mouthing off to the guards and taking up extra work for Dolores, who can't handle the strain, and when a platoon of male laborers is brought in, Simone starts a relationship with Mojo (Timothy Brown), a musclebound voodoo priest with strangely boyish charm.
However, despite the recognizable trappings, there's something about the movie that feels like it's not taking its genre all that seriously, or else just doesn't know enough about it to hit the notes. First of all, there's the continuing oddball humor, mostly centered around huckster Max and gullible mark Ricky, as they try and fail first to seduce Sugar and then several of the other girls. Also, this has to be one of the only captive women films I've seen where after the work day is over, the guards and laborers of both sexes gather round a bonfire for a folk-guitar singalong and beach party-style dance! Rather than guarding the prisoners and quashing joy, which is usually in the guard job description, Max sells them liquor from a huge overcoat and coaches Ricky on how to score with the nearly-raped innocent from the transport scene. And the ease with which Sugar and the other girls can go to and from their bunkhouse after curfew is fairly shocking--to say nothing of Sugar's encounter with a PUMA OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE, whom she's able to tame with her feminine wiles. Seriously.
All this would make the movie seem like a PG-13 attempt at a WiP flick remake, except for periodic and totally incongruous scenes of nastyness or outright batshittery. For instance, Dr. John's "experiments" all seem to involve ancient cures for frigidity, a malady none of his test subjects seem to suffer from. But that doesn't stop him from strapping Sugar to a table, hooking her up to a mad science headpiece, and injecting her with an herbal extract that causes her to have a spontaneous orgasm so strong it sends smoke billowing out of the orgasmometer! A later experiment has Dr. John injecting several domestic cats with a "primitivizing agent," then having the guards toss the cats on the girls to teach them a lesson. I thought we were going to get the elusive "death by cats" scene here, but instead the kitties just scratch the girls up--or rather, sit around looking confused while the girls shriek and rub fake blood all over their arms, which is almost as good.
On the nasty side, right after the aforementioned scene the doc similarly straps down Dolores, and upon finding out she's a virgin, paws her while whispering discomfiting things in her ear before finally carrying out a (blessedly off-screen) rape. Later when Sugar tries to seduce other guard Carlos into helping her escape, Burgos strings her up outside and whips her like he means it. When her would-be lover tries to interfere, the chief guns him down, pumping the corpse full of lead while some rather pyrotechnic squibs spray blood all over! After the Hogan's Heroes-esque tone of Ricky's aw-shucks shyness and Max's good-natured aphrodisiac-peddling, this comes as quite a shock.
Later Mojo uses his...um, powers...to locate a mass grave of previous failed experiments, and the girls try to use the skulls to blackmail Dr. John into better treatment. Instead he has Burgos hunt down Mojo, who hides successfully for a while in the ladies' shower room, which gives the director the opportunity for more Hogan's Heroes-like comedy as the naked girls shriek and toss the embarrassed guards out to cover their (also naked) compadre. This gives Mojo the opportunity to score with Simone before going out to perform a voodoo ritual to "ask the gods" what to do. Apparently the answer is "DIE!" because Burgos captures him (but not before he magically DODGES A BULLET from Burgos's gun) and burns him at the stake while Dr. John laughs maniacally. Later in Mess Hall, Burgos informs the ladies that they've been dining on Mojo's roasted flesh, which is nicely sick but really crossing the line in terms of the overall tone.
Of course it all leads to the expected jailbreak, with Dolores and Sugar seducing the guns off a couple of guards, Max and Ricky joining the ladies in their run for the border, and Sugar running Burgos through with a machete. Somewhere in there Dr. John gets a knock on the head and starts talking about himself in the Maniacal Third Person, shouting "Dr. John cannot die! DR. JOHN IS INDESTRUCTIBLE!" before Simone sacrifices herself in a fiery cataclysm, presumably just to shut the dude up.
Oh, and there's an out-of-nowhere lesbian love scene in a river halfway through, just for spice.
As I said, it's kind of hard to know where this flick came from, or what the director might have had in mind mixing TV sit-com comedy with BDSM, cannibalism, and kitty torture (and a few admittedly zang-worthy nude scenes), but it has to be said the strange juxtaposition makes the movie much more interesting (if confusing) than it would have been playing straight one way or the other. The acting is all pretty bad, making me wonder whether Phyllis Davis was the money-man's squeeze and this vanity vehicle was a gift to her. (Note: probably not.) Duncan is entertainingly eccentric as Dr. John, and Albert Cole as Max seems to have a knack for the kind of skit-show comedy he does throughout, ill-placed as it might be. Still, for the most part it just leaves one scratching one's head.
I would call this an average entry in the rather dubious genre, which would earn it a 1.5 thumb rating on a good day; however, the weirdness, Dr. John's mad science, and the sight of slow-motion cat hurling lifts it another quarter point to 1.75 thumbs. Because when you can't get the big things, the little things can still get you through.
Credit where credit's due--I shamelessly stole the poster graphic from Samuel Wilson's review of the same flick on his excellent blog, Mondo 70, which you should check out for this and other cinematic treasures, not to mention scholarly and insightful writing on same.
A few more stills from SWEET SUGAR (1972):
"Freeze frame! FREEZE FRAME!"
Church of Meathead
"Is that a machete in your pocket? Oh."
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
It's a tough life in the Joint.