Director: Bill Gunn
USA - 1972
In 1972, blaxploitation reached its
peak in popularity. When Bill Gunn was tapped to direct a black vampire film, he was
expected to whip out something quick and cheap in order to get the movie on the market as
soon as possible, and reap the financial benefits of the current blaxploitation fad. The
resulting film was Ganja and Hess. Though the film featured black actors, and
vampirism was a predominant theme, Ganja and Hess was not the movie the
producers envisioned*. Instead of a cheap, Blacula knock-off, Gunn had created an
intricate tale of addiction, love, and betrayal.
Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, of Night of the Living Dead fame) is a renowned
anthropologist. Through a contact at the museum he works for, Green is introduced to a new
field assistant -- George Meda. Green takes Meda back to his house, where they have
dinner, drinks and conversation.
That night, Green wakes up to find Meda perched in a tree, and drunk out of his mind. Come to find out, Meda is manic
depressive to the point of suicidal, and it takes a great deal of coaxing and patience for
Green to get him to come down. After discussing the matter thoroughly, and seemingly
putting it to rest, Green goes to bed. Later, Meda comes to Green's bedroom wielding an
ancient dagger from a previous excavation. They scuffle, with Meda ultimately gaining the
advantage -- thus, stabbing Green three times in the chest with the dagger. After the
deed, Meda adjourns to the bathroom and, naturally, bathes. Once clean, he gets out of the
tub, produces a gun, and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Green awakens in the bedroom, the
wounds on his chest mysteriously healed. He finds Meda's corpse, but before he can turn to
the phone and notify the authorities, he is irresistibly drawn down to his knees beside
the body; and Green proceeds to lap up the blood.
The doctor employs various methods for sating his newfound addiction; from passive
means such as stealing from the neighborhood blood bank, to more heinous acts like murdering prostitutes. Though this satisfies his hunger,
the guilt of his actions proves overpowering, sometimes causing Green to become physically
ill; and sometimes causing him to pray for exoneration (heheh..I said exoneration).
A short time later, Green is called by Ganja Meda, who, obviously, is looking for her
husband. After it is explained to the irate (unknowing) widow that Meda has been missing,
Ganja requests (read: demands) that Green pick her up at the airport, and bring her
back to the house to await Meda's return. Against his better judgement, Green sends his
chauffeur to retrieve her.
Mere moments after meeting Green, and eyeing his various valuables, Ganja, seemingly,
forgets about her AWOL husband and seduces the doctor. Green is immediately taken by
Ganja's..um, "charms," and falls in love with her. The next day, while Green is out, Ganja, while making dinner, goes down to the cellar to
retrieve some wine -- and inadvertently happens across her husband's lifeless body in the
freezer. By the time Green returns, however, Ganja has regained her composure, and waits
until the middle of dinner to unveil her recent discovery.
Green, visibly unperturbed, listens as Ganja rants about her dead husband. But he calls
her bluff, knowing well that Ganja would not sacrifice her prospective newfound wealth in
order to turn Green into the police. Ganja then confides in Green stories from her
tormented childhood, the abuse from her parents, and her vow never to go hungry again. Or
something to that effect. Soon thereafter, Ganja and Green are married. The scene cuts
rapidly from the couple exchanging their vows, to the couple discarding Meda's body.
Later, after Green does the unenviable task of explaining his addiction to his new wife,
Ganja, surprisingly enough, is quite understanding, reasoning that, "Everybody's some
kind of freak," and she, in fact, can, "dig it."
Green, thinking he has found someone he can share eternity with, does the inevitable,
and sucks (ha!) Ganja into the life of an immortal. Though, at first, it seems like a good
idea, the burden of his new bride and her reluctant transformation, along with the trials
of his own addiction, guilt, and his quest for peace with God, proves to be too much for
Dr. Green, and he soon finds himself backed into a corner -- with only one possible means
Ganja and Hess is an art film. Usually, when the words "art" and
"film" coincide, I cringe in fear; art films are not, exactly, my favorite genre. The
art film, to me, is best described in a classic "Sprockets" episode on SNL.
The film they featured had a POV camera panning through various rooms of an empty house;
the picture in complete black and white. Finally, the camera approaches a closet door, and
upon opening the door we find a man clutching the only colored object in the film -- a
rubber chicken. THE END. But when done well, artistic ambiguity in a story can be a good
thing; but only when handled with a sure hand. Ganja and Hess leaves a good portion
of the tale open for the viewer's interpretation, but never delves into the pretentious
realm of, say, Lynch's Lost Highway or Todd Hayne's Safe.
This ambiguity lends itself into making Ganja and Hess fascinatingly surreal.
During many key scenes depicting Green's conflict with his blood lust,
there are flashbacks to the ancient civilization of Myrthia (from which the aforementioned
dagger came), showing a small band of people, in full ceremonial dress, running across a
field in slow motion, and beckoning for Green to join them. Coinciding with these
dream-like visuals is a superb soundtrack, highlighted by a chorus of child-like chanting
interspersed throughout the film. Amazingly, this chorus sounds both innocent and menacing
at the same time. Gunn has a rare talent for creating abstract ideas that are odd,
but at the same time, not insulting.
Like the direction, the score, and the cinematography, the acting in Ganja and Hess
is also top-notch. Jones' portrayal of Dr. Hess Green is superb; a moody, hard-to-read
individual torn between
physical addiction and spiritual salvation. Marlene Clark is also convincing as Ganja
Meda; greedy and venomous, but at the same time, fragile and defensive. The closing shot
of Ganja turning to the camera and smiling is both bizarre and priceless.
Overall, if you're going into Ganja and Hess with hopes of campy fun along the
lines of Blackenstein, Blacula, or The Invisible Black Man (Get it?
If he's invisible you can't tell that he's bl...oh, nevermind), you're going to be
disappointed. But if you're in the mood for something utterly unique that requires some
thought (I know, it hurts), I cannot recommend Ganja and Hess enough.
*The producers of Ganja and Hess found the film to be unmarketable, and
proceeded to re-edit it into almost an entirely different movie called Blood Couple,
which focused more on the vampirism than Gunn's previous version. It is reported that Gunn
was enraged at this new cut, and had his name removed from the credits. I have yet to see Blood
Couple, but it's only a matter of time.
(Though David Walker hasn't contributed to the OTF cause in quite a while, he is still
a good friend, and wrote (along with Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog) a fascinating piece comparing
and contrasting Ganja and Hess with Blood Couple. I highly encourage you to
check it out here.)
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-- Copyright © 2000 by J. Bannerman