“Ganja & Hess,” a 1973 horror film (and winner of a critics’ choice prize at the Cannes Film Festival), has been newly restored to the original director’s cut and is now being distributed by Kino Lorber, Inc. on a summer-long film tour. The summer of screenings kicks off at The Metrograph in New York City, May 30 – June 11, 2018.
Directed by Bill Gunn (“Stop,” “Personal Problems”) and starring Duane Jones (“Night of the Living Dead”) and Marlene Clark (“Sanford and Son”), “Ganja & Hess” holds an important place in the 1970s indie movie/black film pantheon. Despite its “low budget” horror film quality, “Ganja & Hess” is ripe with metaphoric meditations on modern religion, accepted sexual norms, victimhood, and African American oppression, all of which resonate today and justify its place in important cinematic history.
Wealthy anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Jones), while in the midst of studying the Myrthians, an ancient African civilization of “blood drinkers,” takes on a new assistant, George Meda (Gunn). One night, in a fit of a mental breakdown, Meda attacks a sleeping Green and stabs him to death with a cursed dagger belonging to the Myrthians. Meda, racked with guilt at his actions, kills himself while Green rises from the dead — now immortal as a result of his cursed wounds.
Green, now a full-fledged vampire, learns to deal with his bloodthirsty condition by feeding on not-so-innocent hustlers. After some period of time, Meda’s wife, Ganja (Clark), arrives in town looking for her missing husband. With immediate sexual chemistry, Ganja & Hess (movie title – drink!!), quickly develop an intense relationship. Ganja eventually finds the frozen dead body of her husband but after some brief gnashing of her teeth, doubles down on her love for Green. Convinced of her commitment, Green turns her into a vampire and they get married (she also briefly takes a lover, kills and feeds on him). Unable to continue his disassociation from God and his faith, Green takes his own life. In the closing scene, Ganja’s dead lover (the one from when she first turned) is resurrected and we see the spark of possible happiness play across Ganja’s face.
The film is explicitly broken into three parts with the first two, “The Victim” and “Survival,” setting the stage with Meda’s madness and Green learning to “live” in the face of this new condition foisted upon him. The film meanders here for me as we deal with Gunn, as Meda, emoting some sexual confusion towards Green but also some sort of madness taking hold. Title cards at the intro to the film tell us that the three stab wounds to Green’s body represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and the movie comes back to Green’s former Baptist church from which he strays once he is turned. This departure from his faith, together with visions of the Myrthians when his blood lust takes over, serve as visual cues to the war over Green’s soul. With the exception of his suicide scene, complete with ritual cleansing, I found Gunn rather rambling – so much of his dialogue (as Meda) seems improvised, I am curious if he had given himself more than an outline of what he wanted to say before the cameras rolled. But, through Jones, the film takes on a weight and importance far above the “low budget” style you’d expect from the production values (the movie was made on a budget of $350,000 – approximately $2 million in today’s dollars).
In terms of quality and resonance, “Ganja & Hess” moves into another gear once Marlene Clark’s Ganja enters the picture in Act III (“Letting Go”). Clark storms on the scene with Type A personality level aggression – seemingly born from having been down the road of her husband going off his rocker before. Once she gets a look at Green and his high-end lifestyle, she immediately moves into seductress mode, checking off all the boxes Green’s lonely vampire self has been missing. Green’s quiet simmering rage together with Ganja’s sexy smolder combine to form a believable relationship – formed fast and burning hot.
Almost immediately, the duo begin a free and sensual sexual relationship. After she is turned, part of her learning to accept her new reality involves her experimentation with a new lover (with Green’s approval). Clark takes us along on her emotional journey, a tempestuous torment as she learns to feed and deal with the same demons that plague Green. In a short amount of time, Clark’s portrayal of Ganja takes us on an emotional journey that may be fast but is delivered with such conviction as to still be believable.
Aesthetically, “Ganja & Hess” is greatly helped by a score, and original music, performed by Sam Waymon (who also plays the ever-preaching Reverend Luther Williams). Ranging from romping Gospel to haunting tribal chants, the music is an eerie and ever-present additional character in the film, guiding us towards Gunn’s vision of what we should be feeling in each shot without having to necessarily be told. The last feature worth noting is the look of the film: Gunn made the most of his budget, using the grittiness of early 1970s New York and the naturalistic settings of the Hudson Valley to nimbly compare and contrast the wealthy life of Dr. Green, the successful anthropologist, and Hess, the vampire cursed by an ancient African civilization. The use of meadows that Hess and later, Ganja, run through when they are on their blood lust, trains the viewer immediately to understand the condition and inner turmoil the characters are going through.
Is “Ghanja & Hess” for everyone? No. But if you are a fan of gore and psychological horror, and even more so if you’re a fan of “low budget” style horror, you owe it to yourself to catch this timepiece genre film of a bygone era. There is an authenticity in “Ganja & Hess” that could never be duplicated today and for that reason, I recommend you add this film to your experience bank before it disappears into cinema history once again.