Monday, June 18, 2018

Fighting Back With Your Dead: SUGAR HILL and Transgenerational Trauma

I am basking in the glow of finishing SUGAR HILL (1974) this morning.

It's the best and most radical blaxploitation horror film I've ever seen (I consider GANJA & HESS more of an underground film, but they're about tied in my affection).  Of course, it's underrated.

It's about a woman whose partner is murdered by white "business men" thug assholes just because the voodoo themed club he owns is successful, they want it for themselves, and he won't give it to them (an astute commentary on white people's vengeful jealousy of black people's success and how it leads to violence, presented more than four decades before GET OUT brought the topic to popular horror films for the SECOND time ever).

To get revenge, she consults her relative, voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, of "Mother Jefferson" fame!), to put a curse on them. Mama summons Baron Samedi, God of the undead (I think?) to resurrect an army of the zombies of slaves who died on the land (I don't know where the movie takes place, but it was shot in Texas).  One by one, the zombies kill the racist white capitalist assholes, who believe that they are entitled to take anything that they want regardless of the consequences to others just because they have attained arbitrary power. Sound like anyone we know?

This movie is crazy relevant now, obviously. It makes me wonder if it is time for the blaxploitation revenge film to make a comeback (I've always wanted to see a gay revenge film, too...DIRTY MARY?  I know).  I love how the best of these movies really get institutional racism, and the narrative structure usually involves the hero or heroine destroying all of the racist underlings on his or her way to cutting off the head at the top. They always show the protagonist going through a racist hierarchical system that permeates all of American culture. Given that somewhat problematic but largely brilliant movies like COFFY, FOXY BROWN, and SUGAR HILL were mostly written and directed by white men, they're surprisingly aware of how these things work. Phenomenal actors like Pam Grier, of course, contributed behind the scenes in the screenwriting process. And even if Marki Bey and Don Pedro Colley were just performing in SUGAR HILL, they add a tremendous amount of power and socio-political oomph (especially Colley, who lures men to their death by imitating subjugated black stereotypes in a brilliant performance that seems largely improvised).

Sugar's army of deceased slaves turned army hit men is, to me, incredibly profound. I cannot and would not try to speak from the perspective of the black experience.  But as a gay Jew I do know what it's like to have a large swath of entire generations that came before me annihilated by evil power systems. I know that, particularly as a gay man, there is something inside me that is empty and anchorless because of the generation of mentors, artists, lovers, friends, and political activists who were lost to AIDS and/or violence because the people who could have stopped it, to quote Vito Russo, "didn't give a shit." No exaggeration, it haunts me all the time. I know, at least from reading, that the shameful nightmare of American slavery and the perpetual violence left in its wake have left similar--if not the same--traumatic scars on the generations of black people who came after.

In SUGAR HILL, as in our own present day, the racist "business men" and their violent actions are the descendants of the slave trade and the institutional racism/violence that it emblematized just as Sugar and her deceased lover are the descendants of slavery and the survivors of its resulting traumas.

There is immense power in the visual of Sugar, with help from her elders, literally giving life back to deceased slaves and working with them to destroy a racist system that, unlike them, did not die.

One of the things that you lose when you've lost so many of your ancestors is all of the fighting that they could have done, the power in numbers that they created. The knowledge that as you grow into who you're going to be they would have your back as you would have their's. For one and a half hours, SUGAR HILL allows you to imagine what it would be like if death--the ultimate weapon of the oppressor--could not take that communal power away from you.  It's a fantasy--but maybe it offers instructive, productive lessons about turning the anger wrought by your culture's traumatic history into action; and maybe it helps impart the knowledge that even if those who came before you have died, you can draw on who they were to try and finish what they could not.

I found it uncannily timely that, over and over and over again, the white villains try to kill the zombies who come for them with guns. Guns--the product of the same corrupt capitalist system that gave birth to the movie's villains--become pathetic and useless when used against Sugar's zombies. I dream of a world in which white men's stupid, weak little guns have no power against a black person's history and the strength given them by their deceased ancestors. It's a beautiful vision, sad because it's only in the movies.

SUGAR HILL's only problem is that it's horror utopian vision is, in its own weird way, so uplifting that it's hard to imagine anybody being scared by it except white oppressors who would never see it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

SyFy Network's DARK MATTER recaps

One of my current gigs is writing recaps for the new SyFy Network series Dark Matters. I'm liking the show! You develop a weirdly intense intimacy with a series when you write recaps for it. I was away for a few weeks, so I didn't get to post the first four the day that SyFy posted them. Check them out now! You can also watch episodes of the series at

Episode One Recap
Episode One Photo Recap

Episode Two Recap
Episode Two Photo Recap

Episode Three Recap
Episode Three Photo Recap

Episode Four Recap
Episode Four Photo Recap

Yay! Today's Chiller TV Friday 13 is on a subject that is very close to my heart: Creepy Canadian Classics! I passed my M.A. comprehensive exams question on transnational cinema because of Canadian horror movies, so I am eternally grateful to them. Note that you will not find any David Cronenberg movies or overt masterpieces like the original Prom Night here because I wanted to highlight the beautiful children hiding in the dark corners... Click on the link for more!

Shout! Factory Blog: 7 Smart Women In Prison Films

"Before Orange is the New Black (whose latest season premieres on Netflix today), media dealing with women in prison (WIP) often had a bad reputation. ‘70s and early ‘80s WIP exploitation films like Chained Heat (Paul Nicolas, 1983) were critically panned and described by many as sleazy, seedy, rape-y, off-putting and dumb, although they have their ardent fans. Orange is the New Black took the basic WIP narrative structure (a na├»ve outsider enters a women’s prison and learns how to function there) and made it smart, adding a healthy dose of character development and social commentary. However, it was not the first to do so. Today, we feature six smart WIP films and one TV series to check out when you’re done binge-watching." Click the link for more!

7 Smart Women in Prison Films

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Shout! Factory Blog!: 10 Movies to Watch When You Miss MAD MEN

I recently got a dream gig blogging for Shout! Factory, the esteemed retro Blu Ray and DVD company. My debut blog is titled "10 Movies to Watch When You Miss Mad Men," for all of you out there who are as sad as I am that the wonderful show has left us! Read the article here!

My interview with the great Adrienne Barbeau!

I recently had the opportunity to interview one of my heroes, the luminous, talented, and wise actress-writer Adrienne Barbeau, who is currently touring in Pippin. Check out the article here!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Chiller TV Friday 13: 13 Movies That Influenced "It Follows"

Chiller TV just published my latest Friday 13: "13 Movies That Influenced It Follows" (or seem as though they did, I would add!).  Read the article here!