Starring: Duane Jones, , Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon, Leonard Jackson, Mabel King, Sam Waymon
Written and Directed by: Bill Gunn
Original Theatrical Release Date: April 20, 1973
DVD Release Date: July 22, 1998
Run Time: 110 minutes
Studio: Image Entertainment
Where to buy:
Ganja & Hess is currently out of print, but new and used copies can still be found at affordable prices on Amazon and vendors who sell through them.
Hello Ghouls and Boils,
YAY, thank the Gods, I finally have the internet back! There were a lot of storms here in Charlotte yesterday. Thanks again to our wonderful Assistant Editor, Floyd, for stepping up and getting a review posted while I stared at the monitor praying for the wireless symbol to light up.
Today I am pleased to present Henry Covert’s phantastic new coloumn, Retrodrome, where he will be unearthing some frightful classics that have fallen off the radar… but I will let him tell you all about it. Enjoy, my fiends!
Sarah L. Covert
Retrodrome will be a monthly overturning of the stones to ferret out lost, lesser-known, or forgotten gems – books, films, occasionally comics – drawn from the well of sci-fi/ fantasy, strange tales, and genre hybrids. Some have had much ink – real and virtual – spilled over them. Others have been discussed only on scattered blogs devoted to such obscurities. Regardless of prior coverage, great or small, the material discussed here will be personal favourites that I feel deserve to be celebrated and enshrined in all their abstruse glory.
My first few columns will deal with some well-loved genre films that are more than a bit outre. For each item covered, I’ll give: the basic stats; the premise – with spoiler warnings tossed in where appropriate; my personal take on the material; and the patented SNS closing remarks and the tentacular rating scale. While formatted like most any other SNS review, the “where to find” info may read a bit differently. Oftimes, the item in question is out of print and perhaps not readily available, but I promise to do my best to point you in the right direction. The one constant premise besides the items reviewed being genre fare is that they are, to put it pointedly, “retro”, i.e. not current or upcoming. Items reviewed will typically be dated before the year 2000. Everything old will be new again in the Retrodrome…
I’ll kick off with a film much-loved by yours truly but contentious to filmgoers and critics, Ganja &Hess. After my review, it should be obvious which side of the fence I land on.
It seems that no one has ever known just what to make of Ganja & Hess. It puzzled exhibitors and distributors in the 1970s, who re-cut the film; rearranged the order of scenes; retitled it everything from Double Possession to Blood Couple to Black Vampire; and generally mutilated a great piece of cinema. Some modern DVD reviewers on Amazon.com deride the film and scoff at anyone calling it “art” and whine and complain about how “slow” and “boring” it is. I have a far different perspective, however. It’s not that hard to “get” Ganja & Hess, and one would hope that today’s viewers approaching the film can knit together its disjointed narrative and comprehend its sometimes non-linear storytelling and often languid pace. I’ll venture to lay out the premise here. Warning: Mild Spoilers follow throughout. If you don’t want the film spoiled for you, you can watch it >>here<< first.
Dr. Hess Green (played by Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame) is an archaeologist and anthropologist researching the ancient near-mythical African civilization of Myrthia. The Myrthians (sometimes called “Myrthinians” in the script as well) apparently destroyed themselves due to their addiction to human blood. One item in particular that Hess studies is a Myrthian dagger that looks like it was carved of bone. Hess’ assistant in his research is George Meda, portrayed by the film’s writer/ director Bill Gunn. Meda is a ranting, suicidal psychotic. During one of his episodes, he stabs Hess to death with the Myrthian dagger then takes his own life. Hess, however, is not dead – he rises, healed, and with an unquenchable thirst for blood. He cannot be killed, even by his own hand. The power of the dagger has made him, in effect, immortal and, essentially, a vampire, though cleverly, the “V” word is never uttered once in the film.
Stealing blood from hospitals to survive and finding himself in dangerous territory with a hooker and her pimp, Hess staves off madness and is soon greeted by George Meda’s widow Ganja (Marlene Clark), a beautiful woman with attitude to spare who soon sparks an affair with Hess. When Ganja learns the fate of her husband and Hess’ true nature, she is mortified. But she soon marries Hess, who wants to share his immortality with her. Thus, she embraces Hess’ quest for blood. Unfortunately, as Ganja grows more decadent in her thirst, Hess begins to seek redemption and absolution, and their paths tragically diverge.
Ganja & Hess boasts gloriously moody cinematography by James E. Hinton, and makes beautiful use of sound, from eerie electronics to the haunting chants to the Myrthian queen that border on hallucinatory. The film has been restored and remastered, yielding a gorgeous print assembled in the manner Gunn originally intended, negating the stigma of the film’s numerous past bastardizations. Tragically, both Gunn and Jones were deceased by the time the restored director’s cut DVD was released in 1998. The DVD does however contain an illuminating audio commentary with the surviving cast and crew. Ganja & Hess was one of only two films Gunn directed, and one wonders what else he may have produced had he lived. Duane Jones is rightfully iconic for his role as Ben in Night of the Living Dead, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more work in film before his passing. For NOTLDandGanja & Hess alone, his cinematic immortality is assured.
With its re-release in 1998, Ganja & Hess was re-assessed and widely hailed as a key film in African-American film history and not just a “ blaxploitation vampire” film. Which is not to say that genre fans should shun this as if it’s deliberately going over their heads. With the passage of time, some backlash, predictably along the internet, has been leveled at the film. But the truth is simple: Ganja & Hess is important as an arthouse film and as a genre film. It is certainly a nearly-lost treasure of African-American cinema. The film has a lot to say but does so in a subdued and, to some, obtuse manner. It is rife with imagery symbolizing the moral tug-of-war between flesh and spirit; rationalism and spirituality; and between Christianity and pre-Christian African religion.
Ganja & Hess is difficult for some perhaps, but it’s a deeply rewarding picture.
Ganja & Hess is an unheralded classic among vampire films; one of the finest films ever labeled “blaxploitation”; and simply one of the greatest genre films ever shot. It is utterly unique; there’s no other film like Ganja & Hess. And, love it or hate it, how many films can truly make that claim? I award Ganja & Hess a full-on 5 out of 5 tentacles.
Henry Covert – Minion (Reviewer/Columnist)