I like movies. If you’ve hung around me long enough, I’ve probably talked your ear off about one film or another. The only thing I like more than talking about the movies I’ve seen is talking about ones that were never made. Not lost films, or the scripts that never found a director, but rather the films that exist only in the fevered mind of what Patton Oswalt calls a sprocket fiend. The films that could have been, should have been, but never were. An alternate cinematic history, if you will.
The first of these – or rather, the one I’ve thought about the longest – is Blacula Vs Sugar Hill (1975). Starring William Marshall, Marki Bey and Yaphet Kotto. Based on a screenplay by Bill Gunn and directed by Larry Cohen.
Imagine if, in 1975, AIP had decided to roll the dice one last time on the Blacula franchise – but this time, the vampire is facing another AIP original – Sugar Hill. With a script by Ganja & Hess (1973) writer and director Bill Gunn, and directed by Larry Cohen, Blacula Vs Sugar Hill (also known as Blacula Lives!) finds a reluctant William Marshall returning to the role of Prince Mamuwalde, and Marki Bey once again sliding into the white jumpsuit of Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill.
Other members of the cast include Yaphet Kotto as the menacing bokor, Mr. Sunlight; Julius Harris as hitman turned vampire, Turner; Art Lund as scheming mob boss Morgan; Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi; Geoffrey Holder as Baron Cimitière; Zara Cully as Mama Maitresse; Don Mitchell as Justin Carter; Thalmus Rasulala as Dr. Gordon Thomas; with a special cameo by Pam Grier, reprising her role as Lisa Fortier in a stunning dream sequence.
A sequel to both Scream Blacula Scream (1974) and Sugar Hill (1974), the film opens with Mamuwalde’s resurrection by the villainous Mr. Sunlight. Sunlight, working for mob-boss Pretty Johnny Morgan, has drawn Mamuwalde back to the land of the living for one purpose: to destroy the woman who calls herself Sugar Hill.
What follows is an overstuffed-but-exciting seventy minute psychedelic showdown between the living, the dead, and the in-between. Zombies battle vampires; Baron Samedi is captured by Sunlight’s magics; Mamuwalde’s old foes, Justin Carter and Gordon Thomas, are summoned by Baron Cimitière to fight the vampire; Mr. Sunlight matches his mystic powers against those of Mama Maitresse; and in the gore-soaked finale, Mamuwalde and Sugar Hill invade Sunlight’s island fortress, battling undead mobsters in an effort to reach the man responsible for their respective difficulties.
The film proves to be a moderate success, revitalizing AIP’s then-waning interest in horror films. Marki Bey is signed to a two picture deal for further Sugar Hill sequels, including Sweet Babylon (1977) – written and directed by Gunn – and Sugar Hill in Hell (1979). Marshall, less interested in returning as Mamuwalde, is nonetheless convinced to give it a fourth and final go in Blacula, Prince of Darkness (1976), which is the first – though not the last – of AIP’s joint-ventures with overseas studios – in this case, Hammer. In the film, Mamuwalde finally comes to grips with Dracula – played by an equally reluctant Christopher Lee – in a ‘senses-shattering showdown of the supernatural’.
While neither actor is what one might call invested, the very act of sharing a screen seems to bring out the best in both Lee and Marshall, and the confrontation between them proves memorable. Appearances by Don Mitchell as Justin Carter and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing cement the film’s status as a cult classic.
With both Bey and Marshall moving on to greener pastures in the early eighties, AIP was forced to get creative. Fresh off of his run on Ironside (1967-1975), Don Mitchell agrees to reprise his role as Justin Carter for further films. The first of these, Q (1982), is directed by Larry Cohen and finds occult expert Carter locked in battle with another supernatural menace, and lumbered with a conniving sidekick, Jimmy Quinn, ably played by Michael Moriarty. The duo proves to be popular enough that Cohen agrees to direct another two, including The Substance (1985), which finds Carter and Quinn investigating an alien menace, and Monster Cop (1988), which has the distinction of being written by Cohen himself, and sees the duo go up against Robert Z’dar’s titular undead cop.
This was followed by a short lived and largely forgettable television series, Carter & Quinn, that lasted for a single season. Even a surprise appearance by William Marshall as Mamuwalde in the season finale does little to perk up the ratings but it finds new lease on life later, on DVD.