Movie Review: Ganja & Hess (1973)

ganja & hess

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

When quiet, respectable anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones) takes on a new assistant, George Meda (Bill Gun), he unwittingly changes the course of their lives. Though amiable and talkative, Meda is neurotic and suicidal, and prone to violent moods. One night, he accidentally attacks Green, stabbing him with an ancient dagger taken from the (fictional) Mythrian tribe. Meda soon after kills himself, while Green is left cursed with a hunger for blood and apparent immortality. Fearful of persecution (he’s the only black person in his wealthy neighborhood), he hides Meda’s body and claims his assistant ran away. But when Meda’s long-suffering wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up looking for him, Green’s secrets can’t help but tumble out. They embark on a steamy affair that eventually leads to multiple deaths in their now-mutual hunt for blood.

Pieced together in a disjointed, nonlinear fashion, Ganja & Hess is a strange, heady blend of grindhouse horror and avant-garde experimentation. Writer/director Bill Gunn was apparently tasked with creating a blaxploitation vampire movie in the vein of Blacula, but he instead managed to make something that feels wholly separate from any one genre- something bizarre and beautiful and horrible and totally unexpected. It is not an easy film to follow, with its story jumping back and forth, seemingly unfinished scenes, and unstable characters, but its imagery is so potent I found myself transfixed. Green’s curse is revealed through distorted chanting and flashes of a “Queen of Myrthia” moving in slow motion, paired with quick cuts and transposed faces. There are also moments of seedy exploitation cliches- as when Green dives into a brothel in his search for fresh blood- but even they are treated with an eerie ambivalence. A sense of Christian morality hangs over the whole proceedings, as gospel choirs sing out gaily and crosses swing from necks, but there is also a subversion of that morality, a hint of how thin the line between supposed “right” and “wrong” really is.

So many of the conversations and interactions feel staged, theatrical. The dialogue is often delivered in this distanced, rehearsed fashion, adding another layer of superficiality to this already surreal story. And yet, though unreal, the characters are ultimately sympathetic, with the fiery Ganja working tirelessly to secure her own independence and the reserved Hess hoping desperately to be saved, and of course the brief but memorable appearance from Bill Gunn as a kind of suicidal Woody Allen stand-in. I found the second half of the film far more interesting than the first, mainly because of the arrival of Ganja. Marlene Clark is haughty and moody and sexy in the role, all of which I dug, but she won me over completely with this amazing monologue about her mother. It’s this very melodramatic, stagey moment, and it’s absolutely perfect, a commentary on teenage rebellion and self-determination and perceptions of black women’s sexuality.

I admit I found Ganja & Hess too confusing at times, especially at the beginning, as it was hard to find a footing within the nonlinear and erratic narrative, and the low-budget quality made some scenes hard to read (low lighting, off-sync vocals, etc). I felt there was a clear-cut story being told but it was hidden within these dreamlike contraptions and experimental filmmaking techniques. But, once I settled into the flow of things I found myself absorbed and impressed, curious as to how such an ambitious and original film hasn’t become a larger part of the film-viewing public consciousness. I have seen it called a landmark black independent film, and know it was screened at Cannes in 1973, where it was well-received, but I rarely see anyone writing or talking about it. Apparently lack of distribution tact and a terrible cut-down version on VHS led to it being forgotten or ignored by many, which is too bad. To me it feels ahead of its time, transforming a “black vampire” exploitation framework into a complex examination of addiction, sexuality, colonialism, and racial stereotyping.


Pair This Movie With: I found myself drawing frenzied connections to other vampire films, just so I could feel a little more grounded as the dreamy weirdness of Ganja & Hess pulled me from all sides. I think something like Thirst (my forever-favorite vampire film) would be good, since it deals with some similar themes. For a pairing that ties more into Ganja‘s experimental leanings, I heartily recommend Czech New Wave oddity Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. And, of course, if you just want another movie about black male vampires there’s Blade, Blade II, and Blacula.

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