Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sweet Sugar (1972)

Somewhere in South or Central America (the film was shot in Costa Rica, some of the dialogue mentions Brazil, so take your pick) Big-breasted (yeah, sorry, that's her only character trait) not-a-prostitute (yeah, sorry, the only thing we learn about her career is that she isn't directly selling her body for money) Sugar (Phyllis Davis) is arrested on a minor drug possession charge and lands in a rather peculiar work camp for it.

There, she and her co-detainees like Simone (Ella Edwards) have to cut sugar cane with the trusty machetes provided by the camp, and pretty much function like indentured workers. Some of the detainees, though, aren't actual detainees, but real indentured workers; I have no idea how the set-up's supposed to work, but neither have the writers.

Anyhow, we're not here to think about how any of the stuff in the movie works, but to follow the usual Women In Prison film adventures of shower scenes, sadistic wardens, too long scenes of odious comic relief, catfights, the black heroine and the white heroine coming together after the catfights, and a climactic escape under gunfire (with explosions). Sweet Sugar provides all this in the expected form and quantity, if not always with as much enthusiasm as I would have hoped for. Of course, this also means that the nastier aspects of the film's sleaze aren't played quite as enthusiastically as in other films: attempted vaginal mutilation, rape and whippings may be part of the film, yet they seem especially fake and harmless here.

I'm not entirely sure how I think about that. On one hand, it's surely nice to see a Women in Prison film that does not provoke me into feeling so dirty I have to take a shower afterwards, on the other hand, one could argue that including the nasty stuff without making it look all that nasty is worse. After all, "harmless" is exactly what sexual violence isn't.

If Sweet Sugar only had this going for it (the bland but okay direction, the sometimes hilarious dialogue, and the dubious acting are a given), there'd be not much use in talking about it beyond calling it a "generic, yet pretty harmless Women in Prison flick like Roger Corman loved to produce them in the Philippines". Fortunately, the film's director Michel Levesque came to this film after making the excellent and weird occult biker werewolf movie Werewolves on Wheels, and does include some elements that can't help but make this film worth watching. Sweet Sugar's sugar cane plantation, you see, belongs to the very, very mad - and therefore funny - Dr. John (Angus Duncan) - as always, not that Dr. John - and Dr. John likes to do experiments as well as torture women, so the receptive audience is treated to some excellent mad science babble while Dr. John tries out a drug and some electrodes which I dub the Orgasmatron on Sugar, until she makes the Orgasmatron explode through the awesome power of her orgasm (don't look at me, I didn't write this). Then there's the inclusion of a male prisoner called Mojo (Timothy Brown) who can use voodoo radar to locate dead bodies, has a good line in voodoo priest babble, and feels the evil spirits.

Mojo does not take part in the movie's high point, though, a scene that alone can make any film worthwhile. In it, Doctor John lets his henchmen throw cats at a bunch of prisoners to torture them (the prisoners, not the cats), after having injected said animals with a serum of which "the Indians" say that it lets its victims regress to their more feral nature (neandercats?). Some of the cats, despite the throwing, seem rather pleased with the situation, some of them licking the "blood" off their victims in very delighted ways, others obviously wanting to be petted by the bunch of writhing women in underwear they have been thrown at; the rest of the cats, being cats, just cat-shrug and move on. Morally, I'm of course all against throwing kittens at people, yet I still can't help but call this scene one of the core achievements in cinema, if not human culture.


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