GANJA & HESS (1973)

  • Director: Bill Gunn
  • Writer: Bill Gunn
  • Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon, and Leonard Jackson
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, shown at 1973 Cannes International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on YouTube or Kanopy (library app), Stream with cable subscription on Showtime app

I watched Ganja & Hess, I swear, but I’m not sure I can describe the plot to you. I then read the plot description on Wikipedia, and was not left with the sense that it described the stuff I had seen. Yet none of these are complaints, really. The first sentence of that Wikipedia article describes this as an “experimental horror movie.” That’s about right. One can only imagine the reaction of the movie’s independent financiers when they discovered that the playwright they had given money to for the purpose of making a “Black Vampire movie” had, in fact, made a movie that seems much closer to, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona than it is to Blackula, the movie they probably thought they were going to rip off.

Ganja & Hess does involve vampires, I think, though it reimagines them in a much more modern sense than most of its contemporaries, as “addicts” rather than monsters. The only exposition we get comes from a that plays over the opening credits, and things only get weirder from there. The story involves a wealthy anthropologist named Hess (Duane Jones), who becomes a vampire after being stabbed with an ancient, cursed African dagger by his assistant (played by director Bill Gunn). After the assistant kills himself in Hess’ bathroom, he kneels over the man’s corpse to lap up the blood. Not long after, the assistant’s beautiful estranged wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), shows up. She finds her husband’s body in the basement, but seems only slightly put off by this. Soon, she and Hess are married, and he turns her into a vampire. Then he tries to escape his vampirism by… going to church? I’m not sure what actually happens at the end of this movie, but the last few shots are Hess getting out of a pond on his property (completely naked) and running across the lawn in slow motion, while Ganja watches from a nearby window, before turning to look directly at camera and smiling(?).

What the above paragraph does not describe in the slightest is the actual experience of watching this movie, which is full of long sequences without dialogue where we watch Hess come apart, or the fact that most of the last twenty minutes or so are basically just a church service, a real one that the crew just showed up to and shot the scene, or the fact that no one explains much of anything to anyone else in this movie. Sometimes there are dream sequences or flashbacks, or what I think are those, anyway, but nobody says that’s what they are while they’re happening. There are long stretches of Ganja & Hess that feel more like they should be projected on the wall of a museum instead of in a movie theater.

Director Bill Gunn had been a fixture in the New York theater scene, but had trouble getting started in feature films until approached to make this movie. He literally wrote fake parts of the script to show his producers, then shot whatever he wanted. He found, to his anger, that his producers wouldn’t back the movie he made. On its initial US release, in played in one theater for one week. No “white” newspapers even ran reviews of the movie, even after it was surprisingly selected to be the only American film to run during the prestigious “Critics Week” at Cannes that year. His financiers chopped off half the movie and re-released it under several different titles (including Blood Couple and Double Possession) in a desperate attempt to make their money back. Gunn only directed one more film, spending most of his career in theater.

However, Ganja & Hess has found its audience in the decades since initial release, especially over the past few years. I have actually seen it mentioned independently several different times over the past couple years, which is sort of remarkable for a movie that basically no one saw in a movie theater at the time. Spike Lee loved the movie so much that he remade it as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which even includes many of the same lines and specific shots as the original. In a compartmentalized marketplace where not every piece of media has to appeal to everybody, it has turned out that this movie is for somebody.

So, is it for me? I’d probably have to see it again, and that’s something I’d be happy to do. I don’t think I managed to really grok this movie on the first go-round. The movie’s use of sound and music is highly unconventional, but it works. It’s probably the most work I’ve seen a soundtrack do for a movie. Gunn uses sound to tell us a lot about the emotions of the characters that we’re not necessarily getting from dialogue. Meanwhile, Marlene Clark in particular gives a really good performance in this movie. Not that long after sitting down to dinner with Hess and calmly announcing, “I know you murdered by husband because I found his body in the basement refrigerator,” she gets one of my favorite speeches in any movie ever. It’s all about how her mother never loved her, and she felt like a disease. “So that’s when I decided, whatever I was, she was gonna have it.” It’s all played in one close-up on her face.

Hess is played, mostly stone-faced, by Duane Jones, who played lead roles in only two movies, this and Night of the Living Dead. We hear in almost the first lines of the movie that he’s “an addict, not a monster.” In a post-Anne Rice world this vision of vampirism doesn’t feel wholly original, but this is probably one of the earliest iterations of that idea. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Gunn chose to tackle the theme of Black addiction at a time when drug use in the inner cities was a frequent topic on the nightly news. Hess has the bearing of an aristocrat, and some of his impact on contemporary viewers might be lost on a modern audience. This is a Black man in America who gets in the back of his Mercedes and tells his driver where he wants to go. In 1973, that is more than a lot of movies would have asked their audiences to swallow.

There is little question that Ganja & Hess was too smart for the room in 1973. I’m someone who likes his movies intensely cerebral, and sometimes I felt like it was too smart for me, in 2021. But I didn’t respond to that with negative feelings toward the movie. I’m glad I saw it, and if it sounds like something you would enjoy, I have a feeling you will. Give it a shot.

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