Sunday, August 29, 2010

Love Bites

For all my complaints about Twilight--and I have many--the fact that the series plays with the vampire mythology doesn’t bug me in the least. Sure, vampires aren’t supposed to sparkle, but if artists didn’t experiment with canon, we wouldn’t have Buffy, Lestat, Martin or Near Dark.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead, as Ganja and Hess is barely a film about bloodsuckers. Commissioned in 1971 as a blaxsploitation horror, filmmaker Bill Gunn instead delivered something that defies easy classification, a pseudo art-house love story that uses the bare bones of vampire lore to explore addiction, faith, and in part, the African American upper middle class.

Quick Plot: 38 year old Dr. Hess, a handsome but single anthropologist (as played by Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) hosts a visit from his troubled colleague George Meda (director Bill Gunn). Meda flirts with suicide, much to the chagrin of Hess (who knows that a black corpse will raise eyebrows on his all-white block). Ultimately, Dr. Meda takes his life five minutes after rudely stabbing Hess with an infected knife.

Hess’s wounds heal in record time, but one lasting scar is a newfound taste for human blood. Before you can summon images of Blacula in doctor’s coat, it’s vital to know that Ganja and Hess never utters the V word. Hess can walk in daylight and pray in church. He just has an adjusted diet and newfound resistance to common methods of death.

Rather than relax at his estate with a wine collection, Hess is soon called upon to welcome a new guest--Ganja, wife of this mysteriously missing partner. A beautiful, beastly woman, Ganja doesn’t take long--about 3 hours by my estimation--to seduce the man who probably killed her husband. The sex seems great, but how long can love last when only one lover has an expiration date?

I can’t imagine my synopsis has whetted your appetite for Ganja and Hess, but dang it if this ain’t one tough movie to sell. That’s old news to director Gunn, who sadly saw his 110 minute enigma sliced and diced for the most likely bewildered drive-in crowd.

Sold as a vampire tale, Ganja and Hess is a little pretentious, a little quiet, and extremely slow. It’s also weirdly haunting and somewhat extraordinary. While there are tokens to be found summoning the ‘70s--pimps, smoking during a doctor’s checkup--this is far less cheesy fun than its genre would suggest. It’s not a party movie, but it sure has some merit.

High Points
Marlene Clark and Duane Jones give more than outstanding performances, charismatic yet not necessarily likable, sexy yet smart, and always simply interesting people you want to learn more about

Out of context, it may hurt your ears but overall, the odd score--mixed with chanting, laughter, gospel and tribal screams--adds a great deal to the unusual feel of the film

Low Points
It’s a little wrong to pick on the DVD production values of a film that due to its troubled history, is lucky enough to finally exist in its feature length...but when the audio is so rough, couldn’t we at least have subtitles?

Lessons Learned
The only questions worth asking are the ones that are impolite

When starring in a low budget movie and filming an outdoor scene, it’s very courteous to the audience to pause your dialogue and wait for planes to pass overhead

Sneaking mysteriously poisoned knives through customs was fairly simple in the ‘70s

I’ve used this statement before, but it’s never been truer: this movie is not for everyone. In fact, I’ll even confess that sleep became my enemy as the film neared its two hour length. It wasn’t until watching the extras--lovingly put together in a commentary and several featurettes--that I really started to appreciate Ganja and Hess. On that front, anybody with an interest in 1970s cinema, new twists on the vampire mythology, or unusual African American-centric films should definitely give the film a try.


  1. Most serious filmmakers go into the process with the best of intentions, but some of them fail to deliver as Gunn did here. Many things were beyond his control. This elicits sympathy from me for Gunn, but not for the film which is an excruciatingly slow paced, pretentious train wreck. Like Zoo Zero, I'd only recommend Ganja and Hess to the most patient and (paradoxically) adventurous viewer. For most everyone else, it's going to be like a trip to the dentist.

  2. I understand your sentiment Shiftless. As I watching the movie, I was definitely checking my watch. Had I not gone through the special features and rewatched some of the film with commentary, I probably would have given it a pretty weak review. The back story though is rather fascinating and hearing some critics point out why G&H is such a different film really put it in a different perspective. It's sort of cheating, but that's just one approach.

  3. Ganja & Hess soundtrack- 4/21/18 contact your local record store to make sure they stock this.
    Strange Disc Records distributed by Light in the Attic Records.
    Oh and “Blood Couple” is on a DVD compilation called “Creatures Critters and Crazies” this is from deleted scenes & it’s a totally different and amazing film.