Sugar Cookies (1973) (Film and Blu-Ray Review)
Directed by Theodore Gershuny
Starring Lynn Lowry and Mary Woronov
Release Date: January 31, 1973
The term “Hitchcockian” gets thrown around a lot these days. It is rare that a film, much less a lower-budget erotic thriller, lives up to such a designation. SUGAR COOKIES achieves this feat with style, and a continuous undercurrent of menace and suspense. While promoted as breezy eroticism at the time of its release, SUGAR COOKIES is really so much more; with terrific performances, an intelligent script and more layers than an onion. SUGAR COOKIES will envelop the viewer from the pulse-pounding opening moments right up to its shocking conclusion.
Max Pavell (George Shannon, General Hospital), a sleazy director of “art” (read: sex) movies, likes to play games. His playmate du jour is his star, Alta Leigh (Lynn Lowry, SCORE). Ready to take Alta’s submission to its ultimate culmination, Max stages a game of sexual Russian Roulette which leaves Alta dead. Tidying things up to look like a suicide, Max tasks Alta’s agent Camila (Mary Woronov, EATING RAOUL) with finding him a new actress for both his films and his kinky games. Camila agrees and, while auditioning young hopefuls, comes across Alta’s Doppelgänger, the naive and innocent Julie Kent (also Lowry). Carefully and deliberately she molds Julie into the resurrection of Alta, delivering the girl into Max’s web of perversion. Her motives, however, are unexpected…and the consequences are explosive.
Without meaning to gush, SUGAR COOKIES absolutely took my breath away. It is a subversive story that is at once uncomfortable and irresistible. The depravity of the characters is presented with such uncommon grace that viewers will barely notice the depths into which they are being drawn. Through the film’s veins runs an ice-cold streak of psychosexual cruelty, but the sumptuous photography and seductive soundtrack give us an odd sense of comfort. Playing out like a sexualized VERTIGO, the film twists and turns in so many directions that the viewer is as disoriented as the naive heroine, trundling with Julie towards her fate. It is this deliberate disorientation of the viewer that is the film’s most brilliant aspect. As the starlet is drawn deeper and deeper into Max and Camila’s web, so too is the viewer, making her the ultimate audience identification figure.
In the dual role of sex star Alta and sweet, unworldly ingénue Julie, Lynn Lowry is a revelation. Lowry has always been criminally underrated as an actress, and is often the best thing about any movie she is in. Here, in one of her earliest roles, she is up against the towering presence of Mary Woronov, and manages her hold her own without missing a beat. She shows her chops early on as Alta and Max play out their kinky game of cat and mouse. There is a moment where Alta realizes that Max’s game has become deadly, and her countenance changes in a split-second. We can almost feel her heart stop for a beat as playfully-dangerous sexuality turns deadly serious. Later in the film, as young Julie has fully committed herself to becoming Alta Resurrected, we see the same chilling transformation. Julie’s resulting breakdown is shattering to watch. This is a highly-effective performance. Lowry takes the audience with her through a intoxicating journey.
The central presence of the film is Mary Woronov’s Camila. Her task is probably the most difficult because, while Julie is the audience’s reference point, Camila is the cat among the pigeons. She needs to deliver a performance that advances the plot without giving the game away. Woronov offers a performance that, quite deliberately, swings from reserved ice queen, to nurturing big sister, to domineering villainess . This serves to not only keep her fellow characters guessing, it keeps the audience on edge about just where from Camila’s motives truly stem. Is she really in league with Max? What was the true nature of her relationship with Alta? The viewer can never quite get a handle on Camila thanks to Woronov’s calculated performance. The role was specifically written for her by director Theodore Gershuny, to whom she was married at the time. She is a stunning presence on screen and impossible to look away from.
The villainous Max is played with a cruel sneer and percolating danger by George Shannon. Shannon had a long-ranging career, from stints in soap operas, to smaller roles in every genre of film over the course of 30 years. He plays the wicked Max with a delicious coldness that is frightening and unpredictable…and disarmingly sexy. While Shannon’s long career is certainly noteworthy, perhaps more so is his post-acting career. Upon leaving the profession in 1995, Shannon returned to school and has become a leading researcher in the field of aging. He earned his PhD after entering his sixth decade of life, showing that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
The film is finely crafted by director Theodore Gershuny (SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT). The dialogue (written by Gershuny and Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman) is intelligent and the locations are glorious to look at. In Hitchcock fashion, Gershuny makes a cameo in the film. Unlike Hitchcock, however, Gershuny’s cameo is played in the buff in a highly erotic movie-within-a-movie love scene that sets up Alta’s character as an adult film star.
Only one note slightly jars the symphony, a comedic subplot about Max’s nebbishy son-in-law Gus (Daniel Sadur, who is excellent in his only film role). This plotline seems to come from another movie entirely. These scenes, full of slapstick and broad comedy, do advance the story somewhat. It is established that Gus both idolizes and lusts after Max (deferentially calling him “Uncle”) and this adoration is used by Max as a way to torment his ex-wife (played by Warhol favorite Monique van Vooren). Gus’s attempts to mold himself into the image of what he thinks will attract Max are very funny, but go on too long and distract from the finely-crafted suspense surrounding these interludes. Don’t let this dissuade you, though. The distraction is momentary.
The supporting cast is quite impressive, especially the little-known but very talented Maureen Byrnes (CRY UNCLE). Byrnes is introduced early on as Dola, a former sex film queen who has been deposed by Alta’s ascent, and desperately ekes out an existence as a prostitute. Byrnes brings a lot to her small role, making Dola another sympathetic victim of Max’s use ’em and lose ’em approach to life. She returns to the narrative during the aforementioned comedic subplot and, most surprisingly, turns out to be the character on which the entire plot pivots. Just when we think the film has reached its climax, it twists the knife one more time.
Also watch out for Warhol Superstar Ondine as Camila’s bitchy valet Roderick, and soon-to-be hardcore superstar Jennifer Welles as Max’s secretary.
Long lost to fans of subversive cinema, SUGAR COOKIES is now available looking better than ever in a 21st Century release from Vinegar Syndrome.
Expertly restored from a 4K scan of the original elements, SUGAR COOKIES makes its Blu-Ray debut in spectacular fashion. The pop art color scheme is rich and nuanced, long-time fans of the film will find themselves agape at the improvement over previous VHS and DVD releases. A bumper crop of excellent supplements round out Vinegar Syndrome’s must-have Blu-Ray/DVD combo. The set features a brand new interview with star Lynn Lowry who is candid and delightful as she recounts her experiences making SUGAR COOKIES. There is also an on camera interview with co-star Mary Woronov where she dishes about how she bristled at some of her husband’s directorial choices during filming. The always entertaining Lloyd Kaufman is also on hand with his memories of this unique piece of Troma history. The delightfully misleading original release and re-release trailers are also included.
SUGAR COOKIES is most unexpected viewing. The storyline is a study in cruel perversity, but it is presented with such care and such class that it is irresistible and unforgettable. Highly recommended!
(Click any image for a larger view.)