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Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)

Commissioned to make a low budget blaxploitation vampire film to cash in on the success of Blacula (a hugely enjoyable genre piece that would usher in a sequel, as well as the likes of Abby, Backenstein, Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde, and Sugar Hill); writer/director Bill Gunn instead took the Melvin Van Peebles route and delivered a challenging high brow musing on black plight, religion, and eroticism that wowed art house crowds at Cannes, but left empty seats everywhere else. Subsequently the film was re-marketed (as Blood Couple, Black Devil, and Double Possession to name but a few alternative titles) and heavily re-cut by distributors desperate to recoup their losses. Unsurprisingly it didn't work and Gunn's now truncated film fell into cult movie obscurity until a recent dvd restoration...

Whilst studying the ancient African civilisation of Myrthia; Wealthy archeologist Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones best known for Romero's Night of the Living Dead) has dinner at his country home with an intelligent new work colleague, George Meda (Gunn pictured top right), whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic as the night progresses. After coaxing his heavily intoxicated guest from a tree amidst neurotic ramblings; the evening descends into violence as Meda fatally stabs Hess with an ancient Myrthian sacrificial knife, before taking his own life. Awakening the next day the now immortal Hess finds he has an insatiable craving for human blood and soon proceeds in scouring the nearest urban ghettos for food. Soon after Meda's beautiful free spirited wife, Ganja (the prolific Marlene Clarke) arrives from Amsterdam looking for her husband, whom she comments often goes missing. After some persuasion Hess agrees to let Ganja stay until her husband's return, and the two quickly fall in love despite their very different attitudes towards life. Though as Ganja learns the truth about her husband's disappearance and Hess' tragic predicament; their love and beliefs are put to the ultimate test...

In the opening narration of the film we are told by his chauffeur that Hess was not a criminal but a victim, and his addiction was to blood. It is here we get the first strong inkling of Gunn's intention. Is Hess an allegory for the inner city black male and his often negative depiction as junkie, hoodlum, drug dealer, pimp? These poetic double meanings within Ganja & Hess are frequent and often deftly handled. An early shot of George's legs dangling from a tree next to a noose could be equated with Klu Klux Clan lynchings, but whilst Gunn toys with this kind of provocative imagery; the film is never really about racial conflict and rising up against 'the man' (unlike the comparable Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song). He seems more concerned with themes of religion, black heritage, and human morality than anything else. Images and sounds of rustic gospel church gatherings are prevalent, and African tribal chanting accompanies all of the ritualistic 'feeding' sequences to mesmeric effect.

As the title indicates however, it is Hess' relationship with Ganja and their seeming incompatibility that provides the real meat of Gunn's film. Whilst Dr. Hess is a somewhat reserved, balanced, and scrupulously pure individual. Ganja is introduced as impure, arrogant and shallow as she initially mistakes Hess for a manservant and dismisses him, before rambling about the merits of marijuana smuggling over dinner. Later, on establishing his submissive position within the household; she proceeds to verbally browbeat Hess' butler Archie (Leonard Jackson) in a sickening display of power. Indeed Ganja is clearly as enamoured with her new social standing as she is with Hess himself. Is Gunn commenting on wanton materialism in the face of perceived class status and the often resulting black on black violence? Perhaps, perhaps not. Ganja & Hess' love scenes are handled with an earnest sensitivity rivaling Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie's memorable clinch in Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now,suggesting they are genuinely, and mutually in love. Yet in another scene Ganja is clearly distressed at having to leave behind a male feeding victim whom she has been intimate with (a scene that takes on greater meaning later in the film). Ultimately Gunn propels Ganja & Hess towards themes of religious redemption and sacrifice only one of them can acquire, and is prepared to make. It's an inevitable conclusion that leaves many unanswered questions, but which makes perfect sense in context.

It's sad but understandable Ganja & Hess flopped with mainstream audiences. As well as Melvin Van Peeble's genre defining Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (mood and style), Abel Ferrara's symbolic vampire film The Addiction is the only other movie I can compare this to in that it touches on similar themes with vampirism as a backdrop. Yet neither are very accessible in a mainstream sense. Ganja & Hess eschews conventional genre trappings and style in favour of somewhat aloof symbolic imagery, improvisational yet no less theatrical dialogue, deliberate fever dream pacing, and introspective narration. It is, in short, slow pretentious and self indulgent, but crucially not at the expense of coherency. Clearly the focus is overt heartfelt social commentary in the guise of horror rather than a simple exploiter with allegorical undertones, and whilst Gunn consummately fails in delivering a satisfying scare movie; he often hits the bullseye in the visceral mood piece department. It's very much of it's time, yet often feels prophetic in terms of the human race. Despite my usual rejection of the more surreal end of the movie spectrum, this is a hypnotic film I want to return to and fully understand, which must surely mark it as a partial success in my book.

I've only become aware of this film over the last couple of years, so I was pleased to see this was your latest review. I'm yet to read anything which has swung me one way or the other about whether to try and see this or not and, sadly, I'm still none the wiser. That's not a comment on your review, UF, which I enjoyed, it's simply that I can't decide whether I want to try and sit through this or not. Because that's what I think it'll be, a film I'll have to sit through, rather than one I enjoy watching.
5-time MoFo Award winner.

Thanks HK. I've known about it from various capsule horror guide books as Blood Couple for a few years, and as Ganja & Hess from Josiah Howard's Blaxploitation guide which I picked up on release.

I think your comment hit the nail on the head because it's a bit of both really. I actually watched the film twice before reviewing because my first watch was tough going, i.e. something I was sitting through, and I wanted to get a better handle on it. For all the moments I found myself asking what the hell Gunn was thinking with that shot or piece of dialogue, there'd be another mind blowing scene around the corner that had me reading half a dozen hidden meanings into it. Definitely not a film for mainstream genre fans, and not something I'd usually go for, but for my interest in 70's black cinema and horror. That's what kept me going as well as the beautiful soundtrack. I'll also add that I found it a lot more rewarding the second time around and it's certainly something I'll watch again (though I can't afford the dvd at the moment). Somehow I think you're still none the wiser though.

Well, I'm a little wiser, as maybe that's just how it is with this film. For some of us, anyway. Also, should I see it, if I do feel as if I'm enduring it rather than enjoying it, I'll be more inclined to give it another go.

Black Rainbow (Mike Hodges, 1989)
If the premise of rent-a-kook fave Rosanna Arquette as a troubled medium targeted by industrial gangsters isn't enough to whet your appetite; then how about I throw in veteran acting ledge' Jason Robards as her alcoholic dad, and cult director Mike Hodges (the original Get Carter, 80's classic Flash Gordon, and the justly acclaimed Croupier) to sweeten the deal. Interested? Because I live for movies like this. Neglected, overlooked (it was barely released at all in the UK) and ever so slightly underrated, Black Rainbow has enough production clout to elevate it well above the occult thriller mire, and certainly deserves rediscovery.

Martha Travis (Arquette) is a revered young medium who claims to be a conduit to the dead. Managed by her widower father, Walter (Robards) the pair travel America's bible belt staging shows for often deeply religious working class congregations, eager for messages from loved ones. For Walter the act is nothing more than an elaborate, highly profitable scam that he claims will earn them enough to retire on in a couple of years. That is until Martha begins to receive psychic visions of the dead before they have passed, and prophesies the assassination of a local plant worker about to blow the whistle on health and safety violations. The realisation of her prediction brings the inevitable media scrutiny and ultimately makes her the target of corrupt plant officials fearful of exposure. At the same time Walter's scepticism of her gift is thrown into question, as revelations surrounding her mother, and his handling of their finances unravel...

Black Rainbow often feels like Hodges gene spliced Mike Nichols' Silkwood, with David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. It's as much a comment on dangerous working conditions and the lack of support unions (at least at the time in these southern states) as it is about the mental toll of clairvoyance on fragile relationships. The backdrop of local superstition and poverty feels like a character in itself giving Hodges's film a distinct atmosphere of passionate desperation beneath the dilapidated Southern Gothic veneer. Arquette is perfectly cast imbuing Martha with a fascinating aura of confused mystery, emotional vulnerability, and sexual manipulation; resulting in an intruiging enigma of innocent victim meets predatory witch. Equally up to the task is Robards as her exploitative father who deep down knows she's the real thing, but chooses to live in denial and lose himself in the bottle. It makes for some truly chilling viewing, particularly Martha's first 'performance' which veers from carnival side show to disturbing reality, with a single look of horror from Walter, blowing any notion of this being a tired is she or isn't she affair clear out of the water. Sadly however Hodges is unable to keep a tight rein on proceedings, seemingly unable to decide if Black Rainbow is a taut thriller, or psychological family drama. His script meanders at times, with supporting characters such as Tom Hulce's unconvincing journo' sceptic, either hackneyed diversions, or in the case of Ted Silas' hitman John Bennes and his shadowy employer; frustratingly underused. In a minor contrivance Bennes is lengthily delayed at the airport whilst en route to kill Martha thus removing any urgency, and ensuring the film is at lest ten minutes too long. When the pair do finally collide Black Rainbow returns to form with a mesmeric supernatural encounter that beautifully meshes themes of father daughter validation, with a fresh conundrum surrounding the full scale of Martha's power. If all this leaves certain answers teasingly out of sight, it at least feels in keeping with the themes at hand, and goes some way to cementing Black Rainbow as better than your average...

Hickey & Boggs (Robert Culp, 1972)

It's no surprise that just two years after the box office failure of Marlowe (an ok but commercially unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the noir thrillers of the nineteen forties and fifties; Hickey & Boggs would take a markedly different, decidedly un-chic approach at deconstructing rather than attempting to pay homage to the genre, whilst considering highly fashionable fare like Don Siegal's hit Dirty Harry. Written by first timer Walter Hill, who would go on to script Peckinpah's classic The Getaway before emerging as something of a maverick director himself with gems like Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48Hrs, and Streets of Fire. Hickey & Boggs is a downbeat sun drenched noir bearing his unmistakable gritty stamp (even the poster faintly resembles his smash 48Hrs.) whilst predating Robert Altman's celebrated The Long Goodbye, and Polanski's iconic Chinatown. The film is also, but not only notable for re-teaming stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp of lighthearted sixties TV show I Spy, and gleefully casting them against type - whilst standing as Culp's only directorial effort outside of television.

Dead-end, weary gumshoes Al Hickey (Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Culp) live hand to mouth on small jobs, regularly drinking away their earnings, and spending the night 'in the tank'. Boggs is struggling to pay alimoney, whilst Hickey often comes under fire from his estranged wife for being an all round loser. Approached by a creepy lawyer (who likes to stare at pre-schoolers whilst sunning himself semi-naked on the beach) Hickey takes the job of tracking down the man's girlfriend who just so happens to be the only surviving member of a robbery in which $400,000 was lifted from a Detroit bank. Unsurprisingly Hickey and Boggs aren't the only interested party, and soon find themselves knee deep in bodies, rubbing up against Black Panther style radicals (headed by a character called Mr. Leroy played by Sil Words), shadowy mobsters (headed by a character called Mr. Brill played by Robert Mandan) and suspicious cops (headed by a character called detective Papadakis played by Vincent Gardinia)...

Ironically, one of the most notable aspects of Hickey & Boggs, in Walter Hill's screenplay is also what partially lets it down. Overly convoluted and lacking in exposition - we often flit from scene to scene with only a rudimentary idea of what's going on - the film's focus is more on the mundane reality of what it is to be a low rent private eye in seventies Los Angeles; than a rose tinted celebration of intricate plot and traditional noir tropes. The fact Hickey and Boggs lead depressingly dull lives outside of their profession hurts the film by undermining any attempt at compelling kitchen sink drama - though this is only attempted with Cosby's character. Where Hill's treatment scores is with typically introspective, no nonsense dialogue, and the notion that these men are the last of their line in a profession overtaken by the modern world. 'It doesn't mean anything anymore' utters Boggs in a reference to their inability to forge a respectable living, and it's this dour pessimism that defines the film (and no doubt turned off audiences on it's initial theatrical release). When our anti-heroes finally walk off into the sunset you almost feel as though the sun is setting on a romantic ideal the film just lovingly trampled all over.

Elsewhere Culp's direction and particularly Bill Butler's cinematography are full of striking compositions, and sweaty, oppressive atmosphere. An early long shot of the city underscored by composer Ted Ashford's monotonous, buzzing drone depicts Los Angeles as sun baked pulsating termite nest - frenzied, immoral, corrupt. Culp and Cosby play their roles with dead pan cynicism completely devoid of swagger, loyal merely to each other, and only motivated in going the extra mile when Mt. Brill's goons over step the mark by killing Hickey's wife. The violence is sporadic but brutally efficient handled without any real flare by Culp until the final beach denouncement of them as unsung heroes with big guns. Now familiar faces pepper the rest of the cast in small roles. James Woods appears briefly as a police detective, Michael Moriarty as one of Brill's henchmen, and Ed Lauter in a typical character role. It's remarkably stylish stuff really, with the kind of substance not immediately apparent until you consider it against more respected stablemates of the period.

Macon County Line
(Richard Compton, 1974)

Made on a miniscule budget of $225,000 this became a drive-in smash hit and it's not hard to see why. Directed by Richard Compton who would follow it up with unrelated sequel Return to Macon County the following year before eventually winding up in television; Macon County Line followed a trend of early seventies exploiters like Walking Tall, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that either suggested or professed to be based on fact. Whilst these films were often exaggerated for cinematic effect (Hooper's film a lot more than Karlson's chronicle of Buford Pusser), Macon County was a complete fabrication. An ultra lean road movie/thriller scripted by Compton and Max Baur Jnr. who also co stars as vengeful deputy Sheriff Morgan.

Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (real life siblings Alan and Jesse Vint) are a couple of free spirited rebels 'catting around' through the deep south, on a last hurrah before inlisting in the army for three years. After picking up an attractive young (but no less worldly wise) hitcher, Jenny (Cheryl Waters); the trio run into trouble when their Chrysler convertible breaks down leaving them stranded in a dead end backwater without sufficient funds for repairs. Challenged by the local facist deputy (Baur) the group are told to leave town or be charged with vagrancy, an order which forces them to pay for a temporary fix. At the same time a pair of desperate wanted killers, Elisha and Augie (James Gammon and Doodles Weaver) pass through and end up killing a police officer before their eventual capture by Deputy Sheriff Bill (Sam Gilman). Unbeknownst to everyone the hoods have already murdered Deputy Morgan's wife during a home invasion, an act that leads to a tragic case of mistaken identity when Jenny and the boys later park for the night on Morgan's land...

With an energetic opening credits sequence showing the boys running out on a prostitute to avoid a beating from a trio of thugs. Compton sets up an early fifties picture of roguish sleaze, before having the them dodge the check at a diner after craftily chaining the local smokey's black and white to a lamp post. They're happy go lucky scamps with an eye for the ladies, and a total disregard for local law enforcement which puts this slap bang in Smokey and the Bandit meets American Graffiti territory. It's fun and care free, but you can sense trouble is just around the corner, especially after learning their real reason for enlisting in the army. As expected Alan and Jesse Vint have a natural chemistry as siblings, and Wayne's frustration when Jenny falls for Chris is charmingly articulated by the latter in a candid conversation with his new lover. At 89 minutes this is a delightfully focused example of superior low budget film making. Baur's script expertly creating believable characters through intelligent dialogue, and Compton's stripped down direction ensuring every scene is relevant. When the boys break down and have to deal with a local mechanic we're treated to an amusing southern caricature from Geoffrey Lewis as the eccentric grease monkey, before Baur's Nazi deputy enters the fray with a chilling display of power; this after being introduced buying a rifle for his ten year old son. Perhaps most disturbing is the way Morgan raises his sensitive boy, Luke (played by Leif Garrett); denouncing a friendly interaction with some local black children whom he conservatively deems should be segregated. That just don't seem right to me pa replies Luke, who decked out in an Army cadet uniform proceeds to have a nightmare about the horrors of hunting with his father. Macon County Line surprisingly emerges as a thoughtful anti-gun statement considering the predictable but still extremely tense final reel. Much like other drive-in classics of the era it's grainy low budget aesthetic only adds to the feel of authenticity, but here the writing is a distinct notch up, even if the overall package appears deceptively simplistic, and old fashioned. Recommended.

Skin Game
(Paul Bogart, 1971)

My dad sat me down to watch Skin Game around twenty five years ago when it regularly used to air on TV here in the UK. It's a film I've never forgotten in that it entertained me whilst putting themes of race and the legacy of slavery at the forefront of my mind. My dad just wanted to watch a fun western starring one of his favourites in James Garner, and almost certainly didn't intend it to be a history lesson. But Skin Game left a lasting impression on me regardless. I've been trying to buy the Warner Archive dvd release for over a year now, but temporarily gave up after receiving out of stock emails on no less than three occasions. Fittingly my dad picked it up for my birthday a couple of months back granting me the opportunity to see if Skin Game still holds up, and perhaps more interestingly - is as much of an influence on Tarantino's return to form Django Unchained as I suspected.

Cocksure charmer, Quincy (Garner), and his educated, cynical sidekick Martin (Lou Gossett Jr.) are a couple of grifters who scour the mid west conning rich white land owners by selling Martin as a slave, then having him abscond before moving on to the next town and repeating the process. It's a hustle that clearly works very well as the duo already have over ten thousand dollars saved in a Chicago bank prompting Martin to consider a change in career lest they finally be caught. Things begin to go awry however when the pair arrive in a volatile town undergoing a vote on whether to abolish or keep the slave trade. Here they encounter fellow con-woman, Ginger (Susan Clark), who rumbles their scam; whilst Martin due to be sold the following day, falls in love with genuine slave girl Naomi (Brenda Sykes) for sale at the same auction. Martin has Quincy buy Naomi with his share of their loot, but the sale is interrupted by an anti-slavery revolutionary who sets everyone free including Martin. After the duo finally rendezvous in the wilderness somewhat disorientated, they mistakenly head for a town already hit a couple of months earlier. Quincy is subsequently jailed, and Martin sold along with the re-captured Naomi to real slave trader Plunkett (Edward Asner), who in turn sells them on to vile Texan horse baron Calloway (Andrew Duggan). Meanwhile Quincy is sprung from prison by the clearly enamoured Ginger, and the pair hatch a new con in order to locate and free Martin and Naomi...

The ultimate success or failure of Skin Game rests on the viewer's ability to accept a gentle comedy set against the backdrop of the slave trade. Thankfully Peter Stone's screenplay, adapted from a story by Richard Alan Simmons contains enough ugly truths, and serious underpinnings to ensure the film never descends into shallow flippancy. Whilst comedy is certainly drawn from the nature of Quincy and Martin's deception i.e. hateful bigots fleeced by their own prejudice - the idea of a white working side by side with an educated black who can flit in and out of submissive yes masser slave dialect at the drop of a stetson, is clearly beyond their comprehension. Bogart and co. are always quick to counterpoint this with tough reality. An undescribed corporal punishment for Martin is carried out off camera, whilst Quincy is later visibly put to the lash at the same order. An act of torture perhaps more disturbing for a less sympathetic white audience in 1971 when it's their amiable star on the receiving end. Elsewhere sequences of Martin partially stripped and his teeth examined are humiliating, but crucially it's his stint as a real slave that serves as the catalyst for change. His realisation that what they are doing is morally bankrupt regardless of them sticking it to the man. The most effective scene to illustrate his naivety comes late in the film when Martin pleads with Calloway that he is really a fee, educated man from New Jersey and should be released. Calloway responds with disbelief, followed by racist verbal abuse before ordering Martin never to speak that way again lest he face severe punishment or death. Finally Martin comprehends these people see only skin deep regardless of your character and intelligence.

With these nods to gravitas, the cast are able to shine with what is never belly laugh, but certainly smile inducing material. Garner and Gossett Jr. are immensely likable and display a great deal of chemistry as the bickering leads (though I would have loved to see Richard Pryor play the role of Martin), and Susan Clark as sassy trickster Ginger proves the perfect feminine foil for the posturing Quincy. In fact Clark is so good, that later scenes in which Ginger teams up with Quincy - the two posing as missionaries claiming Martin to be a leper who may have infected people he's come into contact with - begin to approach the level of hilarity you wish was present in first half of the film. A reminder perhaps that it's hard to generate anything more than thoughtful smiles, and nervous laughter from slavery. Still, Skin Game remains a fascinating watch well worth seeking out, and would make an excellent double bill with Larry Lust's adaptation of Iceberg Slim's Trick Baby; if not Django Unchained. A film it most certainly influenced a lot more than anything directed by Sergio Corbucci despite the obvious superficial touches. We all know that was Inglorious Basterds right?

Some solid 70's fare there, UF. I've not seen any of them, and I wasn't aware of The Skin Game before, but they all sound quite interesting to me, especially Hickey & Boggs, which is something I remember looking for years ago but had forgotten about.

I have Black Rainbow (old school VHS ) but I think I only watched it once or twice. I remember thinking it was quite a confused film and, as you pointed out, it wasn't quite sure what it wanted to be, which I found quite off putting. I see on the shelf sometimes, but now you've reviewed it I'm curious to see what I'd think of it now, as it's been over 20 years since I last saw it.

Miss Vicky's Loyal and Willing Slave
Great reviews UF. All of them sound rather interesting to me, especially Skin Game. Will have a look into all of them at some point

A system of cells interlinked
What happened to UF? Is he not around anymore? I enjoy reading his stuff...
"There’s absolutely no doubt you can be slightly better tomorrow than you are today." - JBP

Seems the last time UF posted was back in August
Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

I love CUJO...the film has such a claustrophobic feel to it...the camerawork actually makes you feel like you're in that car with Wallace and Pintauro. Dee Wallace was absolutely superb in this movie. Honestly, the story is not exactly stemmed in realism, but we buy it.

Liked your review of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and agree with just about everything you said. I do have to admit though that I may be one of the few people who really liked INTOLERABLE CRUELTY.