Sunday, November 9, 2008


For many of the first action heroines of the 1970s, the rite of passage was a "women in prison" movie. This little genre dates back a long way, but in the great grindhouse decade variations on the theme developed. The great innovation came with Jack Hill's The Big Doll House (1971), which introduced more exotic settings (the Philippines in the first case) along with more nudity and violence and transformed the conventional prison setting into something more like a work camp -- think of the template as something like a distaff Cool Hand Luke. Hill and his stars Pam Grier and Sid Haig followed up on that first film's success pretty quickly with The Big Bird Cage, but imitators were hot on the trail.

One of the early imitators, from 1972, is Michael Levesque's Sweet Sugar. I saw it on Movieflix in a not-so-great transfer from a tape which has the alternate title Captive Women III. Levesque went on to do some art direction and production design work for Russ Meyer and one of the Ilsa movies, but didn't direct another film after this until 1999. That's too bad, because Sweet Sugar has a crazy badness to it that should have had more opportunities for expression in that fertile era.

Phyllis Davis, who rarely escaped from television after this, is our comely heroine. She's framed by an unnamed Central American police force into signing an agreement to work off her sentence cutting sugar cane. The Costa Rican locations look appropriately grungy and give the movie the right sense of environment, especially when the filmmakers practically burn a forest down at the end. You get your brutal wardens, along with one nice won for potential romance and two more relatively benign ones for comedy relief, and you get your standard token Pam Grier clone for an attitude contest with Sugar. But this film's piece de resistance is the real power in the camp, Dr. John, a scientist experimenting with native herbs in attempts to revert animals to their primal savage state. The late Angus Duncan plays this part as what probably proves the role of a lifetime. Dr. John is a sadist and a vivisectionist. He also acquires a habit late in the film, after being bonked on the head, of talking about himself in the third person formal -- but that's getting ahead of ourselves.

This is exploitation cinema, so you hope for something outrageous to make this picture stand out. Dr. John delivers. While his most extreme outrage is ordering Mojo, a black male prisoner who claims voodoo powers, burned at the stake and served as dinner to the female prisoners, another of his exploits is available for you to sample courtesy of YouTube, and this may prove more outrageous than the burning business for some people. It is torture by feral cat flinging.

Rest assured, animal-lovers: Dr. John gets his comeuppance, but not before a spectacular breakout scene, during which he initially stumbles about stupefied from his blow to the head, acting all too calm and passive, only to snarl back to villainous life as he orders his guards to gun down the escapees. Held hostage by Ella Edwards (the token) as they race a jeep through a hail of bullets, Dr. John seems ecstatic. "Dr. John is invulnerable!" he exults shortly before his driver is shot and the jeep hits a wall. He's unhurt, but unwisely taunts the fatally wounded Simone. "You're going to die," he says, "but Dr. John is immortal!" To which Simone responds, "Screw that, muthaf***er!" emptying her machine gun into him and blowing up the jeep while Sugar, a blonde prisoner, and the two comedy guards make good their escape. As a climax, it's not quite up there with the prisoners devouring Wanda (aka Ilsa) the Wicked Warden, but it's a perfectly satisfactory grindhouse experience.

At least one prison-film aficionado holds Sweet Sugar in fairly low regard, but if you think I've given it too much space, check out this review. In the end, though, the writer recognizes the movie for what it is: an exercise in exploitation that largely delivers what it promises. As a rule, I like performers who go out on a limb, so Angus Duncan earns this film a recommendation for grindhouse connoisseurs. Also, the women are pretty to look at, Ms. Davis the star especially, and especially during shower and skinny dipping scenes. The Psychotronic Video Guide considers it "one of the best women-in-a-tropical prison movies," but I'll reserve judgment until I see more in the genre. Overall, this is the sort of movie where you ought to laugh at the violence. Approach it in that spirit, or with spirits, or at least with like-minded friends, and you could do worse with 90 minutes.

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