AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 26th January, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 112 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Dr Hess Green, anthropologist and geologist, is researching the ancient blood drinking civilisation Myrthians and is in Nigeria overseeing an excavation. He gets a new assistant, George Mayda, but he turns out to be unhinged and has to stop him committing suicide. Later, George stabs him with a ceremonial dagger that he found and that he keeps in his bedroom before killing himself. Hess wakes up and finds that his wounds have healed, but he is now immortal and has an insatiable taste for blood, the first provider being the dead George. Then George’s wife Hess arrives, looking for her husband…
You’re a woman and find your dead husband’s body in a freezer in your boyfriend’s cellar. Rather than calling the police or leaving right now, you brood for a couple of hours than go back to your boyfriend, tell him some story about playing with snowballs as a kid and how your mum didn’t seem to love you, and tell him everyone’s ‘into’ something so it’s okay that he’s immortal and needs to drink blood. This is actually probably one of the least strange scenes in Ganja And Hess, a very unusual and rather experimental take on the idea of vampirism and a film far different from most of the Blaxploitation pictures of the 70’s, which generally set out to be little more than unashamedly trashy fun. Ganja And Hess is a much more artistic, stylised venture which sometimes feels as if Nicolas Roeg made a vampire picture with a nearly all-black cast. The film has a reputation of being a neglected masterpiece, and I’m not sure I’d quite call it that, but it’s a fascinating piece nonetheless and the kind of one-of-a-kind film that should be cherished, especially in these days where samey blandness seems to be increasing and the glory days of the 70’s, where so many filmmakers went ahead and did just they wanted, just seem to be a very long time ago indeed.
Production company Kelly-Jordan Enterprises obviously wanted another Blacula, the most commercially successful of a mini-wave of blaxploitaition horror films that were popular at the time. These films were generally not very good, and writer/director Bill Gunn, only on his second film, wanted to make something of quality. He also wanted to make something to make people think, with much of the exposition contained in his script either not being filmed or cut before release. The result was a success at Cannes but was pulled after a disastrous New York premiere, sold to another distributor, and heavily re-edited to try to turn it into a more ‘normal’ blaxploitation picture. This 78 min version did the rounds under the titles Double Possession, Blood Couple, Black Vampire, and Black Out: The Moment of Terror, but the original version became the stuff of legend and after occasional screenings of a partially complete print at the Musuem Of Modern Art and in some colleges, it was restored for DVD in 1988, though one scene was missing until later found for another release. The film was widely praised for its experimentalism and social commentary, and Spike Lee made a Crowdfunder-funded updated remake Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, though somewhat ironically it seems to be having trouble getting a proper release.
Now I normally don’t mention the quality of a Blu-ray release until near the end of a review, but I should warn you that Ganja And Hess does look quite rough. It was shot on 16mm which never looks good when blown up, it’s obvious that some scenes were taken from a different print to others, some look very faded, and the whole film has an extremely thick level of grain throughout, while the odd line and yellow discolouring on the far right hand side of the screen is distracting. However, the restorers have clearly done the best they could with the film and, as with Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of Rabid Dogs which I reviewed a while back, I’d rather have the movie in complete form rather than truncated or not at all. So don’t expect something of great quality picture-wise, though I think Ganja And Hess would benefit from being viewed on a smallish TV. In a way of course, this almost enhances the ‘rough and ready’ feel of much of the film and certainly doesn’t harm it, though it actually almost feels like a film shot by two people. A sense of raw realism, with long takes, hand-held camera work and lengthy dialogue scenes that often seem improvised, clashes with moments of beauty, bloody horror, and striking, innovatively edited set-pieces mixing image and sound in an almost surreal manner. Some shots are immaculately composed. Others are really ragged. Ganja And Hess is a bit of a mess, but it’s a glorious mess.
Titles tell us briefly what will happen, then we have some narration by a reverend over footage in a Pentecostal Church, a shot of a bloody victim, a strange meeting in a museum with a white man.…and then the opening credits, where shots of statues are accompanied by a song telling us about the ancient Myrthians and their addiction to blood, in lieu of more conventional exposition. This film isn’t really an easy one to get into, and once it does get into its groove adopts a very slow, almost meditative pace that I guess will disappoint some horror fans, because the film doesn’t seem bothered about working up some suspense either, even towards the end. The violence of George’s attack on Hess and subsequent suicide is allowed to erupt with no warning and benefits from being so sudden. George shooting himself in the bath is intercut with Hess waking up in a series of odd edits while the music of a jazz record gets more and more blurry, having quite a powerful effect. Hess’ first action is to drink the dead man’s blood, and from now on he is a vampire. There are some vampiric scenes to follow, though the script avoids mentioning the word ‘vampire’ and cleverly inverts some of the usual cliches [a vampire is drawn to Christianity rather than be repulsed by it] while being probably the first film that treats vampirism like drug addiction. Of course much of the emphasis is on the weird relationship between Hess and Ganja, the wife of George whom Hess soon marries.
Most of the film’s major set pieces use echoing music and an electronic buzzing sound, while filming what’s occurring on-screen in an innovative way. Hess dispatching some goons trying to take his money is filmed in a series of strange shots and edits and with some shots missing. There is some sex and gore, but also some moments of almost lyrical restraint, like the camera choosing to circle round some trees during a stabbing, or all we see of one vampiric attack being the victim’s bloody body while we hear the sound of her baby crying. Less is often more, yet this is also a film where blood seems to actually shimmer on one particular victim’s body. The camera often cuts to pictures at certain moments. Gunn also peppers his film with dream scenes involving a man in a mask [one of only two white men in the film] and other folk in African ceremonial garb. Whether you take away something from them or not, they add to the dreamlike, druggy [well it is called Ganja And Hess!] atmosphere. Gunn certainly uses his tale to look at strains within African-American culture, such as the tension between a Christianity inherited from slave masters and a tribal past. It’s odd and even unsettling [clearly what was intended] seeing rich black people order about, and even condescend to, a black servant, and in fact the world of this film is totally different from the often misogynist ghetto culture that most films of this genre exist in. In fact, these murderous vampires are probably better role models than characters like Superfly. In a way, it’s no wonder that this clever and subversive film seemed so out of place when first released and was gutted.
Duane Jones, who was so good in Night Of The Living Dead, seems rather wooden as Hess and is out acted by the far more natural Marlene Clark as Ganja. Maybe Gunn told him to hugely underplay his role. Gunn himself has a juicy role as the crazy, suicidal George and certainly makes the most of it. With a rich and diverse soundtrack ranging from classical to negro spirituals, Ganja And Hess makes for uneven and sometimes even exasperating viewing – for example, even I got tired of the length church scenes bookending the film – but in retrospect I’m not sure I’d want it any other away. Startlingly original, very disorientating and quite multi-layered, Ganja And Hess is hard work but is quite an experience if you open your mind. The special features, mostly ported over from Kino Lorber’s Region A Blu-ray though with an additional select scene commentary and booklet, do shed some light on this unique film.
SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT (BLU-RAY + DVD) EDITION:
* Brand new 1080p high-definition transfer
* Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
* Feature-length commentary with producer Chiz Schultz, lead actress Marlene Clark, cinematogropher James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon
* Select scene commentary with historian David Kalat
* The Blood of the Thing: film historian David Kalat leads an interview-based documentary about the film
* Gunn’s original screenplay available via DVD-Rom and BD-Rom
* Reversible Sleeve
*24-page booklet featuring a new essay by critic and author Kim Newman and a vintage letter written by Gunn to the New York Times, illustrated with archival images