Ganja & Hess

02/18/2020 06:27

Film: Ganja & Hess

Year: 1973

Director: Bill Gunn

Writer: Bill Gunn

Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark and Bill Gunn



This was a film that I’m going to be honest about, I never heard of until seeing the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. It was one that I wanted to check out after hearing what was said about it, more so to see more of the history of blaxploitation cinema as it is a subgenre of horror I haven’t see a lot of. My first viewing was part of February when I did Black History Month for Journey with a Cinephile: A Horror Movie Podcast and then a second viewing for Movie Club Challenge with The Podcast Under the Stairs for October 2020. The synopsis is after being stabbed with an ancient, germ-infested knife, a doctor’s assistant finds himself with an insatiable desire for blood.

We are led off with lines about what we’re going to be seeing in this movie and I’m not going to lie, this did throw me off a bit. It is followed with narration from Rev. Luther Williams (Sam L. Waymon) talking about he’s a minister at a southern Baptist church as well as works for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). He reveals to us that his boss is addicted to blood, but we are then taken to see the events that lead to that.

Dr. Hess is a famous anthropologist who is looking into an ancient African tribe called the Myrthians. They were thought to be blood drinkers and working with Dr. Hess is George Meda (Bill Gunn). Meda is unstable though and threatens to kill himself that night. Dr. Hess is able to talk him down, but Meda attacks him with a ceremonial dagger from Myrthia. Meda then kills himself and we see that Dr. Hess survived, but is transformed into a vampire. He drinks the blood of Meda, but it is interesting that he laps off the ground like an animal.

Being that he’s a man of science, he goes into the place that he works and steals a bunch of blood. This is able to tie him over for sometime, but he soon has to seek out new victims. Things take a turn though when Meda’s estranged wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark) calls him from the airport. She’s just arrived and Dr. Hess decides to let her stay with him. He does soon fall for her and decides that he’s going to share his gift with her. The question is though, is it a gift or a curse?

I decided that I needed to go a little bit lighter here with the recap of this movie as it really doesn’t have the most complex story. I am glad to say though, that doesn’t mean that it is lacking anything though. There’s quite a bit here to dissect. I will admit, after the movie ended, I did look up some things, partially to see how others read into this and to form the best opinion that I could.

The first thing that I wanted to get into is the interesting aspect of this being a blaxploitation film. It comes from 73, but I really like the fact that we got African-American actors in prominent roles. We have a famous anthropologist who is black, his assistant is black and heck, Dr. Hess even has a butler who is black, Archie (Leonard Jackson). He even owns an expansive mansion with a bunch of land. I honestly think this would be surprising even today as I’m writing this almost 50 years after it was made and that’s saying something. Something interesting about where he’s living though, he states he’s the only person of color in the neighborhood.

To shift this slightly, but sticking with the African roots, I like this film’s take on vampirism. It isn’t traditional as we don’t have Dracula or many of the rules that we normally expect with this creature. They do need blood to survive, but they don’t have super strength and can even go out in the daylight. I did find it interesting to read that writer, director and co-star of the movie was given full reign to make a vampire film, but that’s not necessarily what he wanted to do. He made this an allegory of addiction, which is something that was pretty prevalent during the era. I’m just not sure how many films were doing this in the era of having their film carry the message that it is. I have to give him credit as he did get this movie shown at Cannes Film Festival. That is quite impressive to be honest for a horror film.

The movie also has an interesting look at organized religion. If you know anything about me or have followed my reviews, you know that I love when this is questioned. I really noticed this at the end when Rev. Williams is going on and on about how he won’t let evil in and Dr. Hess comes into the church. He is a man of science and he’s looking for an answer to cure himself of his curse, but when he gets desperate he turns to his faith. I do have to say that this plays back into the ending pretty well.

As I was reading more about this movie, I did learn that there are two cuts. I watched the long version, which runs 110 minutes. This version didn’t do very well in the box office and I hate to say it, I’m not surprised. The movie was recut as Blood Couple. What I found interesting is that it has footage that was not included in the one that I saw, but it also cuts out a lot of what was in the longer version as well. I guess Gunn is not a fan of it either. I do have to say that I think the long version is a bit long. I respect him for what he did with introducing mythology I’m not familiar with as well as other aspects that contribute to the surreal feel of it. I just ended up getting a bit bored as this doesn’t have the most complex story, but really a character study of Dr. Hess and Ganja with some interesting imaginary. I did like the ending and the implications we got there though.

Something with this second viewing that I noticed is the character of Ganja. She is a wild woman from everything we see. She is uncouth in things she says, to the point where she is belittling Archie in front of him and he takes it. This is where I can see the assimilation of black people into white society. If you replace Dr. Hess with a white person, I think for the most part, the character stays the same. You couldn’t do that with Ganja though. She resists what Dr. Hess is. I think we really get this with how the end of the movie plays out.

Now I want to take this to the acting of the movie, which I thought was pretty strong. Before watching this, I did a bit of looking into it and when I saw Jones name as the lead I knew I had to see this. Night of the Living Dead changed my father’s life which in turn had a great impact on mine and I’ve never seen Jones in anything other than that, let alone another horror film. He plays this role quite brooding and it’s not that different from Night. I think he’s a great counterpoint to Ganja who is more of a free spirit. She shows her emotions and really rides them somewhat frivolously. I do find this intriguing that she was married to Meda, who is the assistant to Dr. Hess before marrying him as well. Clark did a really good job in her performance. I thought that Gunn, Waymon, Jackson and the rest of the cast was fine in what was needed as well.

Another of the driving forces in this movie was the effects. It was hard to see some of this as the print that is streaming on Amazon was a bit rough if I’m honest. I do think that does help hide a bit of what could be a problem though. This movie doesn’t have a lot in the way of traditional effects. We do get blood that is too bright and is orange. I personally have a soft spot for that, being that my favorite horror movie is Dawn of the Dead. What I really like in this movie was the cinematography though. It gives a surreal eerie feeling to scenes and that was effective for me. I also like that get interesting montages to fill in things that we don’t necessarily see. I read this was an experimental film and I really got that vibe for sure.

Then the last thing that actually goes along with the effects and how this was shot would be the soundtrack. There’s a lot of African music in this along with choir singing from church. I personally think both of this work as it really fits the culture of the people we are seeing. There is some other selections that coupled with the images, really does help build that feeling they’re going for. Taking the chanting farther before moving on though, it always seems to be when the thirst is strongest. It is unnerving to be honest and I like what they’re doing with it.

Now with that said, this movie does do some very interesting things for sure. I really like the aspects of the story that Gunn incorporated in here, even though this wasn’t a movie he was necessarily looking to make. A different take on the vampire lore I can appreciate, I like the social commentary that we’re getting here as well. The version I watched did run a bit long, but I think that the acting was strong, the cinematography and soundtrack were as well. There wasn’t a lot in the way of effects. I didn’t necessarily need them for the type of movie this actually is. I would say that this to be an above average movie. Some of the things worked here, but not everything and I think that’s represented by the score I gave.


My Rating: 8 out of 10