There are few things more dangerous than someone who is rich, gorgeous and bored. New kicks get harder and harder to find, especially when you are someone like art/sex film director Max Pavell (George Shannon) in Theodore Gershuny’s underground-meets-overground psychosexual drama, 1973’s Sugar Cookies.
Opening with Max talking to an unseen reporter about the tragic demise of his superstar actress, Alta (Lynn Lowry), the film switches to a flashback revealing some of the truth behind the young (and damaged) beauty’s death. Waking her out of a more than likely drug induced nap, he starts to seduce her, which quickly turns into a head trip involving a loaded revolver, strange perfume and the handsome but soul-eroded Max pulling the trigger in such a way to make it look like a suicide. The film cuts back to Max talking on the news, his handsome and reptilian image now on multiple screens.
After the TV sleaze interlude, the film cuts to Camilla (Mary Woronov), bathing in one of the best fedoras ever. She saunters into Max’s living room and starts doing some topless stretching and leg exercises. He walks in and the best part is the near-bored look on her face. She knows she’s majestic and is the true alpha in the room. They do end up having sex, all set to the very sensual audio and inter-cut scenes of Alta’s autopsy report. Are we having fun yet?
There’s a weird subplot involving Max’s estranged wife, the fabulous Teutonic bitch-goddess Helene (Monique van Vooren) and her chubby, supremely awkward negligee enthusiast brother Gus (Daniel Sador). The way she hisses such bon mots like, “I will slit your throat!” at Max is heart-warming.
Meanwhile, Camille confers with her charismatically acerbic friend Roderick (the inimitable Ondine) about conducting auditions to find Max’s next big actress. (Something Roderick refers to as a “cunt hunt.” Did I mention he was acerbic?) After a genuinely funny audition montage, the last girl walks in. Julie (also Lynn Lowry) is an elfin looking beauty whose eagerness for an acting role is matched only by her lack of experience. Which is summed up with her sole credit of playing Anya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which Julie honestly describes her work in as perfectly terrible. Camille takes a liking to Julie and begins to groom her. The two women bond, first over seemingly benign activities, like shopping, tennis and swimming. But things soon grow more and more co-dependent, with Julie becoming increasingly more submissive to the innately domineering Camille. Is the moody Amazonian grooming Julie to be the next Alta or to be Alta, complete with the tragic ending?
Sugar Cookies is from a very rarefied period of time where the underground and overground were cross-pollinating. With Warhol Factory stars like Woronov and Ondine, not to mention future Flesh for Frankenstein co-star Monique van Vooren, it has instant art cred. But that said, this is really more than just a cult film curio. Underneath its polished, arty veneer are some mighty strong cynical threads about not just the bourgeoisie but also the dangers of making stars of out of people who are damaged goods right from the starting gate.
Cast-wise, Woronov and Lynn Lowry, two wholly unique and wonderful actresses who would go on to be deigned cult film queens, truly run the show. Woronov is all slinky, sinister grace as Camille, making an interesting mix with the ethereal and fragile Alta/Julie. It’s a bit mind-blowing to realize that Sugar Cookies was Lowry’s first major role. (She had previously appeared as a mute cult member in the incredible horror film, I Drink Your Blood in 1971.) She manages to pull off the two similar but different personalities of her dual roles with conviction, leaving you truly worried for poor, possibly ill-fated Julie.
The rest of the cast, especially Shannon, Vooren and Ondine, are wonderful but are not given enough to do. Shannon, who would go on to shine in Fernando Arrabal’s heart-building and heart-breaking I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse later that year, is good as the handsome but morally sooted director. Monique von Vooren, who was also a cabaret singer that could boast of having a pre-fame Christopher Walken as one of her backup dancers, is all icy hot anger and blonde glamor as Helene. Her fabulous bitchiness is only matched by the brilliant Ondine, one of my personal favorites from the Factory years. These three are all charismatics and while the film is really terrific, it would have been sweet to have more of them within it. On top of that, you also get to see early sexploitation and adult film legend Jennifer Welles as Max’s aggressive, honey-haired secretary.
The casting credits are not the only weirdly impressive ones for the film. In addition to a young Oliver Stone (!) as the associate producer, there’s also Mr. Troma Films himself, Lloyd Kaufman sharing both writing credits with director Gershuny, as well as an executive producer credit. Before Vinegar Syndrome spiffed this film up with a lovely Blu-Ray release, Troma had actually released it years before. Other than the fact that there is nudity and Lloyd Kaufman attached to it, Sugar Cookies does not play out at all like a Troma film. If anything, it’s right next to films like Rufus Butler Seder’s criminally underrated Screamplay (which co-starred underground film titan George Kuchar) and Dario Argento’s last truly great film, The Stendhal Syndrome, which are both brilliant and are about as Troma-like as Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
One of the coolest coups that Gershuny and Kaufman pulled was landing electronic music great Gershon Kingsley for the appropriately trippy soundtrack. Kingsley, best known for the composition “Popcorn,” was a Moog pioneer and one of those composers, like fellow genius-peers Mort Garson, Wendy Carlos and his musical partner, Jean-Jacques Perrey, whose body of work is just begging for more examination.
Sugar Cookies is a dark, strange gem that is as compelling as its mighty cast. If you love any and/or all of the main actresses and actors or just want to see something different from a point in time where the cinematic lines were thinner and ultimately, more interesting, definitely give this one a go.