Director: Bill Gunn
Screenplay: Bill Gunn
Cast: Marlene Clark (as Ganja Meda); Duane Jones (as Dr. Hess Green); Bill Gunn (as George Meda); Sam Waymon (as Rev. Luther Williams); Leonard Jackson (as Archie)
Synopsis: Anthologist Hess (Jones) is stabbed by an ancient ritual dagger by his suicidal assistant George Meda (Gunn). The dagger transforms Hess into a vampire, dependant on human blood for sustenance. Meda's wife Ganja (Clark) appears to try and find him only to start a romance with Hess, also leading to her learning of his vampirism.
It feels questionable to call Ganja and Hess a Blaxploitation film. Blaxploitation has always meant to me rambunctious genre movies with primarily African American casts, potentially great movies with great scores but action packed and fast paced films to be grinded through film projectors. An introspective horror movie that's heavily into symbolism, even if its erotic and has violent, really strays outside this sub-genre template immensely. The late Bill Gunn took advantage of what might've been a dull job for him, turning a vampire movie he was offered into an introspective character piece. It has sex and blood, but in its uncut form the lengthy dialogue sequences and introspective tone is closer to a John Cassavetes film, not a conventionally "fun" movie about thrills and chills. The emphasis on a naturalistic and realistic take on the vampire myth is significant in contrast to other vampire films from the period. This is far before the deconstructions of the vampire myth becoming popular, in an era when the Hammer horror films were still being made and, despite Ganja & Hess being an incredibly sensual movie, almost psychedelic softcore by the likes of Jean Rollin or Jess Franco coming from Europe. In vast contrast to the classical tradition or the psychedelic imbued eroticism, you have Hess living an ordinary life that is yet dictated by a form of drug addiction, where he must go into a doctor's clinic and distract people to steal blood bags, only to end up having to stalk people and matter-of-factly kill them to drink their blood, no fangs but a messy aftermath in every case despite the moderate use of blood.
In lieu of a clear theme, instead the film is a series of textures are interlaced over this premise especially in the contrast of African mythology against Christianity. The mythology is connected in places with the blood drinking and in intense sequences, but the reoccurring image of a Queen marching through the plains (played by Mabel King) is far too serene for the connotations of vampirism to seem like proper similarities, feeling intentionally complicated. The Christian virtues depicted, in the scenes when Hess' chauffeur Luther Williams is in his other career as a priest at a local church, never becomes sanctimonious but far more justifiably heavenly, very grounded and more so when it is the source of the salvation at the end of the film for Hess himself without any damnation of his soul for the curse he has. The result is something which you rarely see in horror films, which have a nasty tendency to depict African culture as a version of voodoo and witchdoctors which has nothing to do with the real version of them but encourages racial stereotypes, a far more balanced and complicated take on the subject. Not surprisingly an African-American director-writer with an entirely black central cast is not going to portray their cultural heritage as a two dimensional concept, as Gunn neither treats Christianity as a cheap way form of good, preferring to tackle either with the level of complexity that you have to wait until Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995) for a similar film that uses the vampire trope for such philosophising.
What's interesting though is that because of the circumstances of the film being produced with the expectation of a vampire film, Gunn using his creative control to change the premise offered to him but still making a genre film when its all said and done, this is also a film that has the same grubbiness of many hidden gems of American horror cinema of this period. A flexibility, as a result of the producers Kelly-Jordan Enterprises approaching a man more well known for playwriting whose first film wasn't released, is here that is to be found in some of the most rewarding and interesting genre films coming for the US in the seventies, even the brazenly schlocky ones, where there's a level of unpredictability, a habit of casting fascinating faces onscreen, and having idiosyncratic obsessions in the dialogue and tones. Ganja & Hess unbelievably sensual as mentioned especially when Ganja (played by the utter beautiful Marlene Clark) appears, a charismatic person who hides behind cold sarcasm but opens up and reveals an individual who has suffered from her childhood and takes to her beauty, and then vamparism, to become stronger and self-willed. The film, predating the South Korean film by many decades, inches close to what happens in Park Chan-Wook's Thirst (2009)¸never getting to the point of the vampirism given to Ganja giving her the freedom to lash out at the world, but haults just before when it reaches its ending, Ganja instead a figure who gets a happiness, smiling to the camera at the viewer, that contrasts that film.
The film does qualify as a horror film but one that is directly leant on its dialogue and acting. Whilst Gunn was immensely talented and witty with his script, showing an incredible talent for instantly memorable characters, this would've been a miserable failure is the actors weren't good. Thankfully this wasn't the case; a huge aspect of the film's cult status could probably lay in Duane Jones as Hess, the central role of George A. Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968)¸ charisma and talent for that role transferring over to this meek and quiet individual who is calm even when he kills for blood, something he even has to go upstairs quietly in the attic at one point to deal with so he can drink from a jar of fresh plasma without being seen. Matched with Clark as Ganja and you have a match made in heaven for charismatic titular leads, but there's also great smaller roles in-between. Gunn himself as Ganja's husband is probably the most memorable, the instigator of Hess' plight who can go from an anecdote of Dutch language mistranslation to a suitably black humoured scene of Hess trying to convince him not to hang himself up in one of his trees.
Alongside the history of this film's physical care - butchered into an alternative version for original cinema release, but the original cut on film preserved in the Museum of Modern Art - the film has had a long road to being preserved, but the extremely naturalism look of it is added to by its age, an additional layer of mood to the whole work before you get to what Gunn did specifically in his original creative intentions. Like Cassavetes¸ scenes are dictated by the dialogue, although as I'll describe later there are moments where Gunn depicts the blurring of reality and time that affects Hess during his life before the vampirism and after. This means that the film has a very considered pace with adds to its contemplative tone. Music is incredibly important to the film as well from choral hymns to a blues song explaining the back story of the ritual dagger and a blood worshipping cult of yore. The music naturally is a huge advantage to this film's mood, adding so much character to it.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
Moments in Ganja & Hess fragment its own cinematic time scale, impossible to gauge at points how long it has been between events without even the directly fragmented sequences being mentioned. Barring occasional glimpses of the outside world in some scenes and an occasionally different face or two appearing - Hess's briefly seen son at a garden party, a prostitute and her pimp in a bar, a guest near the end that causes Ganja distress in the events afterwards - it's a character piece set within Hess' own home where, barring his chauffer and butler, only Ganja is there to interact with him. Even when Hess attempts to save himself by going to a church, the building exists without an exterior shot and is presented as a closed-in consecrated ground, adding to its importance as part of an internal struggle within Hess, after rejecting God originally in one scene, where he decides faith is the only cure for his affliction.
The editing at points goes further sometimes in altering the time frame, various realities blurred between the African Queen and Hess' reality for example, as does a strange dream where other characters wearing silver masks and dinner suits invite Hess to a party we never see. The actual tone used throughout for the film, moderate and slow, adds to its eerie mood in general, a drifting atmosphere felt throughout. It's a very sedate movie barring the most sudden of deaths and events, detaching the film from a continuous pace which you have to soak in thoughtfully instead.
Why it doesn't go further beyond a "Medium" is that it's a very dramatic heavy work, a lot of grounded dialogue which drastically contrasts with the overall tone. Where it stands in the category it's placed however is pretty high. What stands out is still very different and has to be viewed differently from conventional vampire stories, the tone and Gunn's obsessions leading to the emotions dictating the tone. This is an inherently expressionist concept where the film, while completely dependent on its performances and script, still maintains its events being dictated by the characters' internal worlds rather than plotting around them. Particularly when it reaches it ending, when a figures rises as if reborn in nakedness from a body of water, the film also has phantasmagoric aspects throughout its narrative, Gunn not sacrificing the horror template he used for his ideas but instead, rather than the stereotypes of the Bela Lugosi vampire, using the material to create images like those mentioned in the review that are more idiosyncratic for what he desired. This means that the foot between its exploitation origins and its artistic intentions - between the psychotronic and expressionist tags I've used - is not that problematic, only so in the case of the original distributors who wanted a straight forward Blaxploitation vampire film. As it stands, the more quieter and pragmatic version Gunn actually made is more suitably macabre and unconventional as a result.
One of the best physical media premieres in 2015, released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK by Eureka!, this was a difficult film for me to work with originally because of its methodical tone and lack of a direct narrative even in comparison to other unconventional vampire films (i.e. Jean Rollin's surrealistic ones). As I've watched it more, Ganja & Hess has a rich mood to it that has won me over. It feels utterly crass to merely view the film as a take of the mythos by an African-American director because, as Bill Gunn once wrote with grievance in a response included in the Blu-Ray booklet, if he was a white European art house director he felt he might've gotten more praise rather than what he felt was bigotry from white American film critics at the time of its release. Thankfully the film was reappraised without unfair bias, and while it does tackle subjects that deal with cultural heritage, it also offers for me one of the earliest reinterpretations of a vampire as a normal, drug afflicted individual, cursed with an insatiable lust for blood rather than a supernatural creature, not a foreign nobleman from a gothic country but a person off the street who has to deal with their newfound undead life with the complications of an ordinary person.
Again, only Abel Ferrera's The Addiction so far in the films of the sub-genre I've seen has the exact same mentality of a drama based around the subject that, unlike Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), is still as much a horror film in tone and content but through a reflective bent. Sadly the director's filmography including Ganja & Hess only consisted of three films, and yet until his death in 1989 he did contribute many plays, screenplays and two novels, immediacy leading me to wonder if any of them are at hand somewhere if I looked for them based on my admiration of this film.