“WARM HANDS, COLD TRIGGERS, BLAZING DEATH! AN EPIDEMIC OF MACHINE GUN MADNESS! .38 CALIBER KITTENS SPITTING DEATH AS THEY CLAW THEIR WAY TO FREEDOM! NOTHING CAN HOLD HER! NOT CHAINS! NOT BARS! NOT A MAN!”
By Paul Mavis
Oh, baby baby baby—did Dino know what he was doing or what? Vinegar Syndrome has released 1972’s sexy, amusingly tawdry “women in prison” actioner, Sweet Sugar, in an exclusive limited edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, featuring a newly scanned and restored 2k transfer from a 35mm interpostive…with results that are explosive! One of the best WIP knock-offs of producer Roger Corman’s huge 1971 drive-in hit, The Big Doll House—not surprising, since it was written by Sweet Sugar’s own Don Spencer—Sweet Sugar gives you everything you want in a “golden age” WIP flick: a sweaty foreign locale, lots of upmarket T&A, plenty of outrages (both moral and physical) against gorgeous women, steamy lesbian action, fistfights, knifings, machine gunning, and other violent substitutes for male ejaculation, nude shower scenes, voodoo rituals, cannibalism, an ample supply of tough-girl one-liners, and a lead actress—the jaw-dropping Phyllis Davis—who’s as nasty as she is smoking hot. Talk about beauty and the beast—she’s both.
Gorgeous, carefree, tough-as-nails nymphomaniac “Sweet” Sugar (Phyllis Davis of Vega$ fame) picks the wrong guy to have sex with: no sooner does he offer her dope than the cops come in and throw her perfect ass in the city joint.
Sugar is soon clued in on the set-up: either remain in jail with no discernible release date, or sign a contract to cut cane on a sugar plantation for two years. On arrival, the sultry brunette Sugar meets her new roomies: cynical black prostitute Simone (Ella Edwards), Latin rich girl/man-murderer Fara (Jackie Giroux), and horny-but-innocent blonde, Dolores (Pamela Collins), who was “sold” to the plantation by her uncle.
The sweaty, sexy, perpetually turned-on women shouldn’t have any trouble meeting their incessant sexual needs with willing guards like tall, rangy Carlos (Daryl Severns), or Mojo (Timothy Brown), the hunky black cane cutter/voodoo priest who has a thirst for booty and freedom (in that order). Bumbling oafs like guard Max (Albert Cole) and his horny, inept sidekick, handsome, stupid Rick (James Houghton) certainly won’t stand in the way. However, the camp’s gross, brutal overseer, Burgos (Cliff Osmond), his hulking, pitiless guard Mario (James Whitworth), and sadistic, perverted camp “physician” Dr. John (Angus Duncan), are real threats to the women’s survival. What they have in mind for these wildcats includes pharmacological sexual experimentation, whippings, beatings, rape, immolation at the stake and within a bamboo cage…and a, um…clawing attack by drug-crazed pussy cats.
If, like me, you either experienced decadent 70s drive-in trash like Sweet Sugar first-hand as a kid (thanks sick, misguided older brothers!), or later on VHS and premium cable, I’ll bet you never thought there would come a day where you’d have to actually justify enjoying titles like The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, or Caged Heat through some kind of bogus, disapproving socio-political-gender-sexuality viewfinder. Who knew that instead of the old days of someone merely calling into question your “good” taste (before they shut their traps because as one red-blooded American to another it was none of their goddamned business what you liked or didn’t like), you would one day be judged in almost criminal terms of trespassing against the new “universally accepted” social norms. Well…welcome to the New World Order of triggered P.C. dogma, comrades! Ain’t it funny how the liberal attitudes that allowed movies like Sweet Sugar to be made in the first place, are now utilized to pillory anyone who would even watch movies that contained—fill in the blank: misogynist, racist, homophobic, ageist, weightist, heightist, whateverist—material, let alone enjoy them?
That’s why I loved this disc’s new interview with Sweet Sugar’s scripter, Don Spencer. Looking not at all like a sex-crazed pervert writer (ahem), but rather a kindly, genial, avuncular retired English teacher from the Midwest, Spencer makes no apologies for Sweet Sugar’s wretched excesses. The seminal (sorry) exploitation pics he scripted—The Student Nurses, The Big Doll House, and Sweet Sugar—are, he states, “fun to watch, no matter how politically incorrect…they’re a good time.” Amen, Don. Amen.
With that said, and thereby leaving behind the current sad crop of floppy-haired hot cocoa-and-pajama boy critics who wet their didies anytime something verboten rocks their social media equilibrium, Sweet Sugar delivers the “women in prison” goods in smart, sassy—and decidedly incorrect—fashion. With Michael Leveseque (Werewolves on Wheels) helming Spencer’s fast-moving, tightly-constructed script, Sweet Sugar’s deliberate ludicrousness is further buoyed by his quick quick approach. Some kind of foolishness is happening in almost every busy scene, and if it isn’t, we’re given copious shots of the four lovely female leads to momentarily distract us until the next outrage. Also notable is Spencer’s penchant for snappy, clever one-liners—not something you hear every day in a lot of similar slapdash exploiters. When Max tells horny Rick to get a hold of himself after viewing the “fat, plump, juicy partridges” that are arriving, Rick laments, “That’s my problem…I get a hold of myself too much.” However, let’s not get crazy here; Sweet Sugar isn’t Noel Coward. Spencer is just as capable at penning appropriately crude WIP quips, well delivered by the tough-girl cast (I can’t decide which is my favorite: Davis’ “I hope someone hacks off your ham bone!” or Edwards’ epic rejoinder, “Hog shit, MOTHERFUCKER!”)
Best of all, Sweet Sugar has a giddy, inexplicable craziness to it that you hope was deliberately crafted at the typewriter (scripter Spencer certainly seems bright enough to do that)…but which could just as easily have been a happy accident due to ineptness out in the field. How else do explain Sugar and Simone grinning like idiots as they’re first trucked into their hellish prison (I thought the feather boa and cocktail earrings were a nice touch for the “Banana Republic Indentured Slave”’s new look in ‘72). Did Spencer and Leveseque deliberately make Osmond comically push Cole and Houghton around like Moe did with the other Two Stooges? Who perfectly timed that droll appearance by the government inspector, who introduces himself to the new cane workers before immediately announcing he’ll be back in a few weeks (at this early point, you’re sure Sweet Sugar is going to be more live-action cartoon, rather than grim exploiter)? And who’s responsible for Sweet Sugar’s most notorious scene: the tabby cats attack, where several sleepy domesticated pussy cats, vaccinated back into a primal state of savagery, are thrown onto our heroines? Grasping their limp kitties (haha! Read that again!), the girls badly pantomime being clawed to death—how did they keep straight faces—as the poor, discombobulated kitties wander around aimlessly, looking for some food? The answer to those questions: who cares? Just thank god they got it all on film.
Of course none of this would have nearly the same farcically rancid impact it does without some juicy turns from the performers, and luckily, Sweet Sugar has a fair number of those. Albert Cole (he of the immortal The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant) seems to understand this is all comical nonsense; what he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in enthusiasm. Billy Wilder alum Cliff Osmond is properly thuggish, playing it relatively straight as the camp baddie (and also getting Sweet Sugar’s biggest unintentional laugh when he merely makes a fist to pantomime having all his fingers chopped off). Timothy Brown is far too genial in a role that demanded some fire, but Ella Edwards hits the right note as Sugar’s world-weary sidekick.
Sweet Sugar’s most consistent laugh-getter is the camp doctor, the delightfully unsettling Angus Duncan (that bastard who took small town Mary Richard’s virginity and then booty-called her in Minneapolis). With those strange, bright little eyes and that weird Ken doll hairdo, Duncan can’t help but get sniggers and big yoks when acting imperious (“I have made an attempt to be civil—I will make no other!”), or seductive (“As you can see, I appreciate beauty,” he purrs inside his “luxurious” tub, in his crummily appointed bathroom, capped off with 1963 New Jersey housewife-approved wallpaper). Throwing all caution to the wind, Duncan flips out at a moment’s notice, either repeatedly screaming at his hapless manservant (“Wolfgang! GET THIS BITCH OUT OF HERE!” made me hit the floor), or demanding that Sugar admit she’s grateful for her (fairly realistic…I hope) orgasm via what appears to be a $1.98 volt meter from Radio Shack (“Didn’t you find it thrilling? DIDN’T YOU?! ADMIT IT!” he screeches hilariously). You can’t wait for him to pop up again and again in the movie.
As for Phyllis Davis in the title role, she comes over as one of the most memorable headliners in the WIP genre (when I first saw her in that halter top and short shorts, hacking away at that cane, I got the whim whams…). I remember Davis of course from her stint on Aaron Spelling’s Vega$, but they didn’t use her right in that TV series (Dean Martin did, though, for years…). Watching her in Sweet Sugar, it’s a shame that someone didn’t put her in something a bit more high profile, to showcase her sexy, confident, funny personality in another lead role. With a full, lush body that simply won’t quit and a sensual brunette mane, she’s irresistible as flirty, flinty Sugar. Regardless of Sweet Sugar’s and other WIP’s exploitation elements, these kinds of roles were among the first graphic movie depictions of women who could swear and kick ass as well as or better than any man, and Davis delivers in those kinds of scenes, as well (she looks pretty comfortable hoisting that grease gun in the fiery finale). Sweet Sugar theme song sums up the title character thusly: “the kind of woman the lover never wants to keep. The kind of a woman the taste that burns you, she’s so sweet.” With Davis in the title role, those lyrics sound almost credible.