Caught canoodling with a prominent politician in a (fictional) South American country, luscious call-girl Sugar Bowman (Phyllis Davis) is framed for drugs possession. In return for a shorter sentence, Sugar agrees to serve as part of a chain gang, harvesting sugar cane alongside sassy hooker Simone (Ella Edwards), sweet seventeen year old Dolores (Pamela Collins) and chic lesbian Fara (Jacqueline Giroux). The plantation proves the sort of steamy hell-hole where tight hot-pants and miniskirts are standard attire, the guards led by the brutal Bergos (Cliff Osmond) are all slobbering sex fiends and presiding mad scientist Doctor John (Angus Duncan) performs all kinds of perverse experiments upon his captive women. Dr. John takes a shine to Sugar but she spurns his advances, preferring to seduce a handsome guard. When John catches them in his own bed, he has Sugar tied between two trees and whipped before Bergos shoots her lover dead. But Sugar is too tough, smart and resourceful to back down.
Producer Roger Corman and writer-director Jack Hill kick-started the women-in-prison craze of the early Seventies with their grindhouse smash The Big Doll House (1971). Amidst the slew of generally lesser imitators that followed, a great many were degrading and vile but a handful proved surprisingly subversive and wittily outrageous entertainments. Sweet Sugar is among the lesser known exploitation films of the Seventies but also one of the finest. There are two factors that account for its high quality, one being the incredibly funny and knowing script written by Don Spencer who also penned The Big Doll House and secondly the witty and unexpectedly charming performance delivered by leading lady, Phyllis Davis.
Best known for her role in Russ Meyer’s immortal Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), Davis embodies the gutsy amazonian Sugar with gusto. Always ready with the perfect put-down (“I hope somebody hacks off your hambone!”), Sugar ranks among the all-time great exploitation heroines, feisty, resilient and sexy as hell. At one point she even flirts her way out of being mauled by a mountain lion. Even wild animals prove susceptible to Sugar's charms! She shrugs off even the most arduous torture and outwits sexist sleaze-bags like the lesser mortals they are. At first Sugar’s outspoken ways irk her fellow inmates, but after the usual roster of cat-fights and shower scenes it comes down to her and, surprisingly, Dolores to spur them into rebellion against Dr. John. Having been deflowered by the crazed camp commandant, Dolores has her spirits roused via a skinny-dipping lesbian liaison with Fara and blossoms into a gutsier, more capable character. While it might be a stretch to argue films such as these harboured borderline feminist undertones, especially given their salacious content, their legacy of proactive, sexually confident heroines had an undoubted impact on cinema.
One area where the film isn’t quite as punchy as Jack Hill’s women-in-prison classics is the direction, courtesy of Michael Levesque who also gave the world Werewolves on Wheels (1971) and later switched careers to become an art director on both exploitation and mainstream movies from The Incredible Melting Man (1977) to Foxes (1980). However, Sweet Sugar includes all the lively, genre-standard tortures and perversions, reaching crescendos of outrageousness with a nod to Barberella (1967) when Sugar’s libidinous ecstasy short-circuits Dr. John’s orgasmic torture machine, and the delirious scene where captive girls are pelted with disease-infected pussycats! Yet the tone remains playful and benevolent throughout, lacking the mean-spirited misogyny that mars lesser genre films. Spencer crams an array of disparate elements into his screenplay - including a subplot with handsome voodoo practitioner Mojo (Timothy Brown) who serves as Simone’s love interest - with little logic but aimed at delivering non-stop fun. After one finale outrage wherein a key character’s corpse is recycled as canteen chow for the inmates, Sugar grabs machete and machinegun leading the ladies in a rousing finale.