Ganja & Hess (1973) - IMDb
Ganja & Hess – 1973

Written and Directed by Bill Gunn
Starring Marlene Clark, Duane Jones, Bill Gunn

It’s impossible to watch Ganja & Hess without realizing it’s importance to historical black cinema. Many themes are explored in the film with the wonder of discovery. It’s plain to see writer and director is letting his lens and his mind wander through this story of faith lost, won, then lost again.

It’s almost impossible to watch this film as entertainment, as well. The performances are dry as a bone, likely due to the extended scenes and the lack of sophisticated equipment, especially for sound. The camera work alternates between inspired and off-kilter, the latter not in a good way.

Duane Jones is Dr. Hess Green an anthropologist who is researching an old world African nation of blood drinkers Myrthia. His assistant, George (Gunn) is unstable. He attacks Green with a Myrthian dagger. While Green lays dead, George takes a bath, brushes his teeth in the bath water, then pulls out a gun an kills himself.

Soon thereafter Green awakens and immediately slakes his thirst on the blood of his fallen assistant. Yep. He’s a vampire. He immediately begins the process of discovery in his new self.

Eventually, George’s wife Ganja (Clark) calls, looking for her husband. Sooner than one can say “Hello Lady,” they’ve struck up a relationship. Their courtship develops in what one could call a leisurely pace. Ganja is hard as nails and it takes a lot to throw her. Everyone who meets them becomes fodder for their growing lust for blood.

Gunn puts a lot into this story. There really is a good story and some nice dialogue sprinkled throughout. The challenge is in how one gets to those moments. The film could use some serious editing, a better cinematographer and way better sound. Lacking that, it’s a slog to get through, especially the sound that rips out of the climax under the cross. It was so bad, people from the next room asked me to turn it down. Way down.

I am not going to pretend that I understand any of the story has some resonance and subtext beyond the straight up horror of the developing situation. I just didn’t see it. What I can say is that Gunn deserved a shot to make this movie better than it is, even with good, beautiful actors like Jones and Clark. It was remade eventually, by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. I have not seen it.

Fair or not, the film that results is worth one time through, and more if you can bear it. I had to stop on my second trip.

(** out of *****)

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