Appellate Judge Tom Becker has never smoked a Hess.
Drinking blood is a very anti-social act.
Ganja & Hess is many things, but here's what it's not: it's not a horror movie. It's not a vampire movie. It started out that way, as a cheap, quick, Blaxploitation chiller, in the vein of Blacula, but writer/director/actor Bill Gunn, improvising as he went along, decided not to literally stick to the script.
What we end up with is a film that's far more personally ambitious and ambiguous than a vampire movie, an art film with all the accompanying pretensions that that classification suggests. It has elements of horror, but the fragmented approach to story and heavy subtext—the blood lust being a metaphor for addiction, for instance—make it seem more suited to a study than a wintry night's viewing.
The basic story: Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead) is a prominent and wealthy anthropologist studying Myrthia, an ancient African civilization, whose people consumed blood.
One night, his new assistant, Meda (Gunn) has a breakdown and stabs Green with a Myrthian relic, a dagger. Meda commits suicide, but Green lives—he's been made immortal, in fact, and now has a taste for blood, which he slakes by offing the occasional prostitute.
Enter Ganja (Marlene Clark, Slaughter), Meda's estranged wife, who comes looking for her husband. She's not unhappy to not find him, and she and Hess become lovers almost immediately.
But will Ganja stand by her new man as his dark secrets come to light?
It's a simple enough story, but Gunn's approach, heavy with symbolism and nonsequitors, is not the traditional horror movie path; you might find it a fully-realized masterpiece, or you might find it a pretentious bore. My own feelings are decidedly mixed.
There's a lot of backstory to the film: Gunn's original script was a fairly straightforward supernatural tale that would have worked fine as Blaxploitation, but this wasn't the story he wanted to tell. He filmed his script, but threw out large chunks of it, filmed new scenes, sometimes unscripted, and worked with his editor to create a film that was far afield from what was expected.
In fact, it was so far afield that the distributors re-edited it using footage Gunn had discarded, chopped the running time by a third, and released it on the drive-in and exploitation circuit under a variety of alternate titles, including Blood Couple and Black Vampire. Gunn's cut was screened out of competition in Cannes, where it won an award, and played less than a week at a few theaters in the U.S.
Certainly, Ganja & Hess is an original, and the film is infused with a rare passion and vitality. It's not hard to see why it had trouble finding an audience; it's a dense, challenging film, and it defies the expectations of a horror movie. Despite the low budget, it's beautifully shot and contains one of the best scenes of erotic horror I've ever seen.
But as is often the case with rediscovered films, the stories behind and around Ganja & Hess tend to overshadow the actual production. The stories of a mishandled release and apathetic public response to a film that might or might not have been ahead of its time give the film a reputation that, in some ways, puts it beyond criticism.
Maybe I'm just a Philistine, but while I found Ganja & Hess intriguing and ambitious, I can't really say that I enjoyed it as much as I'd hoped. It's closer in spirit to Killer of Sheep than to an exploitation film, which would be fine, but the socio-political/horror melding just comes off as artificial and at times indulgent.
"Indulgent," for instance, is how I felt about Gunn's role as the doctor's unhinged assistant, who just gets too much screen time and spends an awful lot of it rambling. "Indulgent" is how I felt about a pair of scenes set in a church at the beginning and end; the first introduces a character who has nothing to do with the story, and the second just seems to go on too long to serve its purpose. "Indulgent" is how I felt about a monologue by Ganja about her mother, and scenes between Ganja and the doctor's butler, in which she mocks the servant. Many of these scenes feel improvised and a little forced. On their own, they're compelling—if I saw any of them excerpted, it would make me want to seek out the film—but together, they make the film feel unfocused, with a self-consciously artsy feel.
While undoubtedly much was lost in the 73 minute cut, at 113 minutes, Ganja & Hess is just overlong—striking, yes, but the parts are just more interesting than the sum.
Kino offers the first release of Ganja & Hess on Blu-ray. A DVD of the uncut version was released a few years ago, and this Blu—which has been put together using the best elements from 35mm prints—is an improvement over the earlier release. Parts of it still look a bit rough, but overall, it's a pleasing image. The supplements are all ports from the earlier release: a commentary and a featurette, "The Blood of the Thing," do a good job outlining the film's history; according to the DVD case, these were made for a 1998 release. There's also a gallery and BD-Rom options.
What's missing here is the cut version—evidently, there are rights issues. Blasted as an abomination by all involved in the director's cut, the theatrical version apparently hewed closer to Gunn's original script and put back footage that he had discarded while removing other scenes in their entirety. While the film itself isn't on the disc, Kino does include what is presumably the next best thing: a BD-rom copy of Gunn's screenplay. While I certainly can't judge the film based on the screenplay alone, I can say this: based on a reading of the script, Ganja & Hess seems that it could have been a superior horror film, certainly a step-up from Blacula and the usual Blaxploitation fare.
Is Ganja & Hess a lost masterpiece? Maybe. It's certainly an important entry in the canon of black independent filmmaking. Kino's Blu-ray is undoubtedly the best way to see this, and whatever criticisms I might have, it is definitely a film that should be seen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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