Michel Levesque followed up the notorious Werewolves On Wheels (1971) with the women-in-prison exploitation classic Sweet Sugar (1972). Sweet Sugar was made at the height of the genre’s popularity and, for the most part, is pretty standard fare for the time. At the time Sweet Sugar was made Phyllis Davis, who stars as Sugar Bowman, was on the brink of transitioning from films like Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) and into more mainstream pictures like Mike Nichols’ The Day Of The Dolphin (1973).
Sweet Sugar follows the titular character from her frame-up for possession to her extortion into working at Dr. John’s (Angus Duncan) sugar cane plantation. When not being attacked by guards, experimented on by Dr. John, or sassing somebody, Sugar is all about plotting an escape. Lucky for Sugar, she’s got Simone (Ella Edwards) and Mojo (Timothy Brown) on her side.
In terms of style and content there’s a lot of overlap between the women-in-prison and white slavery exploitation films. Sweet Sugar blurs those lines even further by including a sub-plot regarding Dr. John’s experiments on the women. Compared to films like Caged Heat (1974), the violence in Sweet Sugar is pretty tame while the emphasis of women as property is a lot stronger. Levesque makes an effort to keep a balance within the complex of this stylistic intersection but he doesn’t always succeed.
As is the case with a lot of exploitation films what makes Sweet Sugar enjoyable are some of the weirdo decisions that the filmmakers made. For example, there’s a scene where Sugar, having escaped, comes across a mountain lion. As the big cat growls and shows its teeth, Sugar reacts by complementing the animal’s muscle tone in a sensual, husky voice. Sweet Sugar gets away with a lot of this type of insanity primarily because the two leads, Phyllis Davis and Ella Edwards, are so compelling as a pair of badass frenemies.
However, the oddest thing about Sweet Sugar is the character of Dr. John. At the beginning Dr. John seems to be the kind of quietly evil misogynist one finds in a Billy Wilder or Douglas Sirk picture from the fifties. Soon after that Dr. John has more of a Hammer Horror vibe to him; campy, violent, and struggling to contain his insanity. But when Sugar rescues Simone and the audience sees Dr. John sitting in his little throne watching Simone squirm in a cage suspended above a fire inside a giant warehouse, all bets are off. In less than five minutes Dr. John goes from speaking in the third person to screaming “Dr. John is invincible” even as he burns alive. It’s an incredibly bizarre arc made even stranger by the fact that Angus Duncan seems to be doing a Tony Randall impression.
Sweet Sugar didn’t revolutionize its genre, but it is a lot more fun than it has a right to be. A lot of these types of films are gratuitously gross and difficult to sit through. The fact that so much of Sweet Sugar is unhinged really helped there. But if one compares Sweet Sugar to Shunya Itō’s prison pictures one can see just how morally empty the former is.