Color, 1973, 89m.
Directed by Theodore Gershuny
Starring George Shannon, Mary Woronov, Lynn Lowry, Monique van Vooren, Maureen Byrnes, Ondine, Jennifer Welles
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC)
The intersection between art and trash doesn't get much more tangled than Sugar Cookies, an early '70s offering from the then-husband and wife team of director Theodore Gershuny and actress/Warhol veteran Mary Woronov, both fresh off the atmospheric horror film Silent Night, Bloody Night. He intended the film to be a sexy cinematic love letter to his wife, but she was caught a little off guard when it turned out to be a fairly extreme thriller packed with steamy lesbian love scenes. Originally titled Love/Deaths, the script was actually the handiwork of future Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, whose dad appears in the film as a lawyer with a kinky secretary (played by soon to be adult star Jennifer Welles). Also brought on board as an associate producer was a young Oliver Stone, a school buddy of Kaufman's, and cast as the other female lead was a young Lynn Lowry, who only had two credits under her belt (I Drink Your Blood and Kaufman's The Battle of Love's Return) but would so go on to cult classics like The Crazies, Shivers, and Score.
Add all that up and what do you get? A wild, wild movie, definitely not for all tastes but crazy fun for those who like their sexploitation with a heavy dose of New York artiness. While engaging in kinky mind games with adult film starlet Alta (Lowry), “art film director” Max (I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse's Shannon) gets carried away with a pistol and she winds up with a bullet in the head. Wen the police investigate, Alta’s lesbian lover, Camila (Woronov), claims she was with him the entire night and provides an airtight alibi. Meanwhile Max contends with his ill-tempered ex-wife, Helene (Flesh for Frankenstein’s van Vooren) and their dysfunctional, overweight son, while Camila holds her own private auditions for actresses and turns up a dead ringer for Alta, Julie (Lowry again), whom she grooms as a nude model, actress, and bed companion. Of course, all is not as it seems when the director and the sapphic duo finally converge back in his studio for a twisted finale.
Both Kaufman and Woronov have been candid in their remarks about this film over the years, with the former repeatedly calling it "the only X-rated film to lose money" (a soft X, that is) and a deliberate homage to Vertigo. In execution it's actually a lot closer to the exaggerated camp excess of Robert Aldrich's Vertigo/filmmaking riff, The Legend of Lylah Clare, though this one in turn anticipated Larry Cohen’s remarkably similar Special Effects (which ditched the lesbian angle, perhaps not wisely). Much of the film’s cult reputation rests on the extended unclad presences of Woronov (years before attaining immortality as Miss Togar in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and Lowry. The direction by Gershuny is hit and miss, offering some striking sequences - e.g., everything in Max’s apartment and Alta’s soft focus, Borowczyk-style adult film-within-a-film (with the director himself doffing his duds to roll around with Lowry). However, the bizarre subplot involving Max’s family never comes close to integrating into the rest of the film, and Shannon is often left adrift when not vanishing entirely for long stretches at a time. A special nod goes out as well to the evocative, pop-flavored music score (including a great theme song) which also makes memorable use of the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” on two occasions.
Easily one of the strongest titles in the Troma catalog (who nabbed the rights after a lackluster theatrical run from the short-lived General Film Corporation), Sugar Cookies was only seen for decades courtesy of a bland, washed-out transfer dating back to the VHS era, which Troma released several times on tape and once on DVD, but at least it was always the uncut X-rated version with that surefire MPAA bugaboo, sexualized gunplay. At least that last version also tosses in video interviews with Lowry and Woronov, both conducted while lounging on a couch with Kaufman. Lowry explains how she got the role and was initially reluctant to perform so many nude scenes; she also had no lesbian experiences to draw on whatsoever, ironic considering she went even further shortly thereafter with Score. Meanwhile Woronov explains to Kaufman that, despite his claims, she never dabbled in girl-girl action (“I hate tits! I’m a dickhead”) and explains her close relationship with the director. Kaufman also supplies a video introduction to the film in which he explains the rejected original title and offers a brief bit of production background. Troma’s theatrical reissue trailer is also included (cut shortly after Lowry’s appearance in 1982’s Cat People), while the rest of the extras are the usual filler including a music video “featuring lesbians,” two typical Troma shorts (“The Art of Self-Pleasuring” and “Radiation March”), and the usual sundry bits of self-promotion.
Fortunately you can pretty much skip that version unless you're an extreme completist courtesy of the 2014 dual-format (Blu-ray and DVD) edition from Vinegar Syndrome, which looks absolutely fantastic and genuinely feels like an entirely different film. The pop art color schemes look terrific, the vintage furniture has never gleamed so much, and the weird little touches in the production design now jump out like never before. It's a great job all around. The Blu-ray contains the original theatrical trailer from GFC (most likely making its home video debut) and a new interview with Lowry (clocking in just over 13 minutes) in which the personable star talks about how she first met up with Kaufman, her giddy reaction to seeing the film with Woronov for the first time, her no frontal nudity clause (which wasn't quite honored), and plenty of other anecdotes about the cast and crew. The DVD carries over both of these and adds on the Troma reissue trailer, the Woronov interview from the previous release, and a new, surprisingly in-depth chat with Kaufman (surrounded by Tromabilia) for over half an hour in which he reminisces about the Oliver Stone connection, the reason Gershuny wound up getting a co-writer credit with him on the film, Woronov's Warhol connections that helped with casting a couple of parts, his issues with the film's final title, and plenty more. Essential viewing.