|Ganja & Hess|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 22 July 1998|
Bill Gunn was an actor who wanted to make the transition to director, so when he was approached to do a "black vampire movie," he jumped at the chance. 'Ganja & Hess,' the resulting film, was a great deal more serious, intelligent and imaginative than the producers were expecting, but it was also clearly not a black horror movie along the lines of, say, 'Blacula.'
The film was taken away from Gunn and re-edited into 'Blood Couple,' though this wasn't the usual sort of desecration, as explained in an interesting article included on the disc by Tim Lucas and David Walker (from Lucas' magazine Video Watchdog). Lucas and Walker claim that even though it no longer really reflected Gunn's vision, 'Blood Couple' is a serious work in its own right. It's too bad that AllDay Entertainment wasn't able to include the film on this fascinating disc.
Wealthy Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), an expert in anthropology and geology, was attacked while studying the ancient black civilization of Myrthia, we're told by opening titles. He was stabbed three times by a stranger, one for the father, one for the son, and one for the Holy Ghost. "Diseased from that ancient culture," Hess became addicted (to what we're not immediately told); he could not die, and he could not be killed.
Hess lives alone in a dark, art-filled mansion some distance from New York; in the opening sequence, headed "Part I: Victim," we learn just what it is to which he is addicted. He uses his wealth and contacts in the art world to invite loners to his home. The latest is George (writer-director Gunn), a talkative artist with problems of his own. In a confusing scene, one of them attacks the other, and George stabs Hess, seemingly killing him. Later George takes a bath (the movie features male frontal nudity from time to time), climbs out, stares into a mirror, then shoots himself in the heart. Hess, who wasn't killed, enters, and laps the dead man's blood from the tile floor.
In Part II Survival, we learn Hess has a young son he keeps in an exclusive private school; they chat together in French. Later, Hess visits a seedy bar, allowing himself to be picked up by a young whore. In her room, her pimp attacks him, but Hess kills both of them; in a shocking scene, he drinks her blood as it pulses from her dying neck.
In Part III Letting Go, Hess is phoned from the airport by George's estranged wife, who calls herself Ganja (Marlene Clark). He invites her to his isolated estate, where she's immediately attracted to him. While he later visits a nearby town to satisfy his need for blood, Ganja (a term for marijuana) finds George's body in Hess' cellar. What this leads to, like much about 'Ganja & Hess,' is at once expected and surprising.
'Ganja & Hess' depends a great deal on strong contrasts, rarely emphasized, but which occur again and again throughout the hypnotically engrossing movie. Dr. Hess is a wealthy, educated man -- but he kills for blood. He visits his son in the exclusive private school -- and immediately goes to a seedy dive. Ganja is shocked to find her husband's body, and briefly berates Hess -- but soon they're laughing again. And there are other contrasts as well: Hess has insulated himself so thoroughly from American society, black or white, that he lives in a kind of intellectual isolation. His house has both traditional European art and art from Africa; he occasionally has beautiful visions of what seems to be an African enchantress walking rhythmically through tall grass. But Ganja is earthy and full of life; she's smuggled some good dope into the country with her, and she laughs a lot; she's embraced the culture around her, not turned against it.
Even though one of Hess' few friends is a revivalist minister (Sam Wayman, who composed the score), and despite the reference in the prolog text to the father, son and Holy Ghost, religion doesn't play much of a part in Hess' life, neither the Christian religion he was brought up in, or the African religion he has been studying. But his relationship with Ganja brings Hess back into touch with the world (as it begins to isolate her from it), and he returns to religion again. But it doesn't work as he hopes.
the movie's rhythms are awkward at times, and the story is occasionally so elliptical that it's hard to follow. The various fantasy images are not always explained, even metaphorically.
The 16mm cinematography by James Hinton is grainy, with muddy, smeared colors -- but it's also imaginative, haunting and dream-like. He was fortunate enough to film during an actual eclipse of the sun; the darkening of the field where Hess crouches is eerie and magical. Much the same is true of the score and sound recording in general; the low budget resulted in tinny, sometimes indecipherable dialog, and the score suffers as well. But like the photography, this matters less than it would in another movie.
Duane Jones was best known as the star of the original 'Night of the Living Dead;' this is one of his few other starring roles. He's an understated actor, a perfect match for the role of Hess Green; is quiet intelligence and physical grace are those of the tormented scientist. Likewise, Marlene Clark is lively, authoritative and sexy, very much a person of the world that Hess is trying to hide from. They're an excellent match physically and emotionally.
Bill Gunn, who died in 1989 at the age of 55, clearly wanted 'Ganja & Hess' to be a kind of breakthrough film, both for himself as a director, and in terms of content. The commentary track by Clark, Hinton, Wayman and producer Chiz Schultz (who's white), again and again points out innovations in terms of the treatment of blacks that originated in 'Ganja & Hess.'
While the characters' race is crucial to the story, it doesn't seem to be quite as significant as the commentary wants to insist. 'Ganja & Hess' isn't important because of its innovations, but in terms of the imagination and care Gunn shows in his screenplay, handling of the actors and treatment of the vampire theme. In a sense, it's more important as a horror film than as a black film, though not being black, perhaps my own bias is showing.
Vampirism itself is already a powerful metaphor, but one that can be shaped and reshaped to fit any number of themes. It's irreducible -- you can't trim it down to mean just one thing. Here, it's part of the isolation that Hess already felt from the world around him, black or white; he travels about in a limousine, the darkened windows raised; he lives in a dark mansion far from town. And he seems to have lived this way before he became a vampire (a word never spoken in the film). It takes the arrival of the outgoing, vibrant Ganja to shake his life -- or Undeath -- to its foundations.
Don't expect a sleek Hollywood movie in 'Ganja & Hess;' its low budget is visible in every frame, but while this can hamper some involvement in the film -- sometimes you feel you're battling the movie itself in order to appreciate it -- it hardly prevents the movie from casting its unusual spell. 'Ganja & Hess' has been overrated by some, but it's a fascinating, involving movie with three outstanding performances and a mood like no other. The dreamy mood is sometimes lyrical, sometimes haunting, but, if you get in sync with the film, it's hard to shake. 'Ganja & Hess' can haunt you.
AllDay Entertainment is another of the DVD equivalents of small press books, seeking out movies that have fallen through the cracks, and bringing them back to public view. They deserve our respect and our support.