Bill Gunn, 1973
Starring: Marlene Clark, Duane Jones, Bill Gunn
The wealthy Dr. Hess Green, who studies African art and anthropology, hires an assistant. Unfortunately the man turns out to be disturbed and stabs Hess today with an antique ritual dagger before shooting himself in the heart. But Hess wakes up with his wounds healed and an irrepressible thirst for blood. He must begin stealing from blood banks and killing to fulfill his thirst. His assistant’s wife, the beautiful Ganja, eventually comes to find her husband, but she and Hess begin an intense relationship. Though she discovers her husband’s dead body in Hess’s freezer, she and Hess marries and he introduces her to an eternal life of pleasure… and thirst.
Ganja & Hess was initially intended to ride on the coattails of Blacula’s success, but it is a far different and more original film. Where Blacula is essentially Count Yorga, Vampire with a black cast instead of a white one, Ganja & Hess is entirely its own animal. Part dreamy Gothic romance, part vampire film, and part commentary on African-American life, there is really nothing else like it. This is writer and director Bill Gunn’s masterpiece, though he was also known as a playwright and stage director. He had a number of other controversial films, including the X-rated Stop (1970), which focuses on homosexual relationships between both men and women.
Though Ganja & Hess is loosely described as a horror film — it is about vampires, after all — it does not use any conventional horror tropes. The word “vampire” is never mentioned and Hess’s affliction is looked at as an addiction or a disease. The film explores identity, culture, gender, race, and religion all in one hazy, dreamlike narrative. The church doesn’t play a major part in the central plot, but the film is introduced by Hess’s chauffeur, who is also a preacher, and Hess self-inflicted downfall happens in the shadow of a cross.
The film deeply examines tensions within African-American life, including the divide between African versus American culture, Christian present versus pagan past, male versus female experience, and rich versus poor. Gender is explored through Ganja’s character. Though at first abrasive and unlikable, the film allows more of her character to unfold. Marlene Clark (Switchblade Sisters, The Beast Must Die, Enter the Dragon) gives a strong, compelling performance.
Hess is a fascinating character within the larger context of blaxploitation films, because he is not a cop or criminal, he is a wealthy, educated, and cultured doctor of anthropology. He lives in a large home with servants and is otherwise completely separate from the stereotypical blaxploitation characters. Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead) is excellent and sympathetic as Hess. He manages to capture a certain allure that more literal cinematic vampires fail to achieve.
In other ways, this is clearly a film from an inexperienced director. Some moments lag and it is necessary to be patient and allow things to unfold at their own pace. There are hallucinations and visions layered with a harsh buzzing and African tribal music. Ganja & Hess is not perfect, but it is a rewarding experience if you can shed your expectations, embrace the film’s ambiguities, and give it a chance.
The film received a standing ovations at Cannes, though it was hated in New York and quickly pulled from the theater. The distributor drastically recut the film, stripping it of its magic and lyricism, and gave it ridiculous new titles like Blood Couple or Black Evil. After the film was essentially lost, a surviving copy remained at the Museum of Modern Art, where it was highly sought after. Fortunately, it is now available on a complete, uncut DVD with a number of nice special features and a commentary track from Marlene Clark.