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Ganja & Hess

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.