Color, 1975, 95m.
Directed by Ray Marsh
Starring Marlene Clark, Lawrence Cook, Wally Taylor, Avis McCarther, John R. Russell
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Lord ShangoLord ShangoConsidering how many actions films were churned out during the Blaxploitation craze of the ‘70s, it’s curious how few horror movies rode along with the wave – and most of those that did were spins on familiar monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, and so on. Fortunately a few filmmakers decided to try something truly new, with the striking and challenging Ganja and Hess now standing as the most famous example among peers like J.D.’s Revenge and Sugar Hill. Often lost in that shuffle is one of the more obscure and unique entries, Lord Shango, which turned out to be a major challenge for Bryanston Distributing in 1975. The film isn’t overly horrific for the most part, but it does have supernatural elements and addresses contemporary African-American culture in an interesting way; however, that wasn’t enough to draw in audiences, so they tried reissuing it as Soulmates of Shango (to no avail). On home video it barely fared any better, getting shuffled off to VHS by Xenon under the odd title The Color of Love before disappearing entirely for decades.

Gorgeous Ganja star Marlene Clark (in between her gigs in The Beast Must Die and Switchblade Sisters) stars here as Jenny, who’s looking forward to the church baptism of her teenage daughter, Billie (McCarther). However, the preacher and some of the head parishioners get a little overzealous and try to perform the same ritual on Billie’s boyfriend, accidentally drowning him in the process.  Jenny’s furious when she finds out what happened, which also involved her boyfriend Memphis (Taylor), and when Billie vanishes from home, our concerned single mom turns to the power of voodoo and Lord Shango to find spiritual satisfaction. Among the chicken sacrifices and drum music, she becomes entangled with mysterious alcoholic local Jabo (The Spook Who Sat by the Door’s Cook), who may be tied to the enigmatic voodoo deity.Lord ShangoLord Shango

Shot on location in South Carolina, this is a humid, intense film that seethes with tension between the two religious forces at play; interestingly enough, it doesn’t really seem to take sides either way as both Christianity and the ancient African religion both have their pluses and minuses with sacrifices required along the way in both. The effective soundtrack by Howard Roberts (which earned an unlikely vinyl release!) nicely balances gospel spirituals with tribal drums, and the whole film has an off-kilter vibe that leads to an unexpected, low key ending that sticks in your head for quite a while. Definitely not a film for everyone, but if you like your horror movies on the meditative side with a heavy dose of American cultural exploration, don’t pass this one up.

Code Red brought this rarity to Blu-ray in 2016 as part of its ongoing excavations of the Bryanston vaults, and it’s a damn sight better than that fuzzy, grainy old Xenon tape. The first two reels have swerved to the pinkish side but detail is very nice overall, and after the first 40 minutes or so the colors look very vibrant and satisfying. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio is fine considering it’s from a print, so keep your expectations in check. Extras include the theatrical trailer (in VHS quality) and a great 12-minute career interview with Clark about her horror and drama appearances, including memories of the married but wandering Cirio H. Santiago and the strangeness of playing a Filipino.

Reviewed on September 28, 2016.