Ganja & Hess Review

On a research trip in Africa, studying the ancient black civilisation of Myrthia, anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed three times with a dagger. Infected by this, he develops a thirst for human blood...

Bill Gunn (year of birth either 1929 or 1934, depending on source) was a playwright and actor, with work in the latter capacity almost all on television: he can be seen in episodes of The Outer Limits and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As a screenwriter he wrote The Landlord, based on a novel by Kristin Hunter. That film was directed by Hal Ashby, but Gunn yearned to direct as well as write his own films. Some of the participants in the extras make the error that Ganja & Hess was Gunn's first feature as writer/director, but it was in fact his second. The same year as The Landlord, Gunn made Stop for Warner Brothers. A marital drama which didn't preclude same-sex scenes (Gunn himself was reputedly a former lover of both James Dean and Montgomery Clift), Stop was given a MPAA X rating and was shelved by Warners, but was shown in New York in 1990, a year after Gunn's death, with very occasional screenings in the years since. (There were plans for Stop to be released as a Warner Archive DVD, but at the time of writing apparently there is a hitch due to missing information to confirm clearances, which will need to be resolved before it can be released. Stop is also notable as the first feature for cinematographer Owen Roizman, and his only credit prior to The French Connection.)

Kelly/Jordan were a production company who specialised in films for African-American audiences. They hired Gunn to make a film for them, cashing in on a mini-trend for black vampire films, for example Blacula and its sequel. However, the film Gunn delivered (at 113 minutes, in itself lengthy for intended exploitation fare), was not what they expected. Inevitably, after a few showings, the original full-length version was taken away and re-edited, cut to 78 minutes, and reissued under a plethora of alternative titles: Blood Couple, Black Evil, Blackout: The Moment of Terror and Vampires of Harlem (despite not being set there), amongst others. Gunn had sent his version to Cannes and took the precaution of depositing a copy at the New York Museum of Modern Art. However, Gunn's intended version became all but impossible to see until recent years, until it was restored in 1998 from that one print.

Shot in very grainy Super 16mm (James E. Hinton becoming the first African-American cinematographer to shoot a feature in the US), Ganja & Hess is a very singular film, not at all the exploitation horror movie the production company expected. What arrived was an idiosyncratic, and undeniably flawed, mix of horror and Bergmanesque art film, the genre content more a metaphor for addiction of various kinds than hitting the usual exploitation notes, though it does contain scenes of bloody violence and sexual content (not to mention nudity, not just female but male as well, full-frontal male at that) enough to earn it an 18 certificate still. What might have been the first act of a conventional horror film – Hess's being stabbed with the knife and becoming a blood-drinker as a result – is dealt with briskly as a series of captions at the start. Instead of the streets and ghettos of a typical blaxploitation film, Ganja & Hess is set in an upscale neighbourhood, with Hess being an academic and George Meda (Gunn) his assistant. Gunn intersperses the gore with discussion scenes between Hess and George or monologues, notably one delivered late on by George's husband Ganja (Marlene Clark). We also have two extended sequences set in church, led by the Reverend Luther Williams (Sam Waymon, who also scored the film and was Nina Simone's brother), Gunn bringing in themes of the clash between Christianity and more ancient religions from the outset, inserting hallucinatory flashbacks to Africa, including a scene shot during a genuine solar eclipse.

Duane Jones was best known as the lead in Night of the Living Dead and was reluctant to play in another horror film. In particular he found the blood-drinking scenes uncomfortable. However, he gives a contained, intense performance as a man struggling with his growing illness and addiction. Marlene Clark had played a leading role in Stop and is a vivid presence here, even though her first appearance is a structurally awkward halfway through, at the start of the third of the film's three parts. She does get a striking introduction, however.

No one would pretend that Ganja & Hess is a perfect film, but at least it is now available in the UK in its director's version. (The shorter version appears never to have been released in the UK, or at least there's no entry on the BBFC database prior to the present release's certification in 2014.) Gunn directed only one more film, Personal Problems in 1980. He died in 1989. Spike Lee's 2014 film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a remake of Ganja & Hess.

The Disc

Ganja & Hess is a dual-format release by Eureka in their Eureka Classics line. The Blu-ray disc was received for review, and comments and ratings refer to this. The DVD (which may well be in NTSC format) is identical in content.

The Blu-ray transfer is in a ratio of 1.66:1, which is an odd ratio for a commercially-intended American film from 1973, but it does look correct. (I'm willing to bet that the great majority of its cinema showings, especially in the shorter version, cropped the ratio to 1.85:1.) As mentioned above, the film was shot in Super 16mm, and the results are in places intensely grainy. The images are often on the soft side, no doubt inevitable given the source format.

The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in LPCM 1.0, and is clear enough, with some roughness no doubt reflecting the circumstances of the film's making. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.

The extras are carried over from the 2012 Kino Lorber edition. The commentary features producer Chiz Schultz, Marlene Clark, Sam Waymon and James E. Hinton, with a short piece from editor Victor Kanefsky recorded separately and edited in. It's a very informative and wide-ranging chat, with plenty of detail about Gunn and the making of Ganja & Hess.

"The Blood of the Thing" (29:41) is a featurette based round interviews with the same participants as the commentary above. David Kalat, who supervised the film's restoration, appears introducing a showing of the film. Kalat also contributes what is billed on the disc menu as a selected-scene commentary but could be called another featurette (17:45). before a brief discussion of the film. Kalat self-deprecatingly tells the viewer to listen to the full commentary first, then the other featurette, before listening to his "yammering" (his word, not mine) but he's certainly worth paying attention to. The main part of this commentary is a discussion of the film's opening sequence. As scripted, the film's premise was set up by means of a rather clunky dialogue scene between Hess and George, and we see pages from that script on screen. This was filmed, and appeared in the short Blood Couple version. In Ganja & Hess, however, this is all dumped in favour of the captions already mentioned, more exposition appearing in the words of songs sung from by the Reverend Williams's congregation, some brief and non-recurring voiceover from Williams, and some seven changes of viewpoint before the film settles down. Bold stuff, and one reason why this is a film that's not especially easy to take in entirely in just one viewing.

Eureka's booklet runs to twenty-four pages, and is mostly devoted to a typically well-informed essay by Kim Newman, which discusses the film's place amongst, and differences from, the black-themed of the time, and later ones which use vampirism as a means of discussing themes of addiction. (One nitpick though: "expatriate" is misspelled "ex-patriot", at least in the PDF copy of the booklet received for review.) Following this is "To Be a Black Artist", a letter by Gunn in 1973 to the New York Times responding to reviews of his film. Also in the booklet are stills and film and disc credits.

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