Ganja & Hess (1973) | Hailed and damned and hailed again! Bill Gunn’s cult masterpiece now on Blu-ray in the UK
Some marriages are made in heaven, others are made in hell!
While studying the ancient Mythria tribe of Africa, wealthy anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones) is stabbed with a ceremonial dagger by his unstable new assistant George (Bill Gunn), endowing him with immortality and cursing him to drink human blood. Following George’s suicide, his sassy, no-nonsense wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes look for answers, but ends up finding a unexpected soul mate in Hess, which results in the couple’s ritualistic union. But when Hess finally decides to seek salvation in a bizarre act of self-exorcism, Ganja isn’t so willing to give up her newly acquired immortality…
‘One of the most literate, allegorical, and evasive of all horror films’
David Walker & Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog
Before you sit down to watch this, be warned! Ganja & Hess is neither a blaxploitation film nor a vampire movie (which it was intended to be). It is, in fact, a hauntingly original, highly-stylised drama about sex, faith, addiction and African American identity. A cult film in the true sense of the word, its fractured history is the stuff of underground cinema legend.
US playwright Bill Gunn was in the right place and the right time when he was handed US$350,000 to make his debut feature. But though he was supposed to have made a blaxploitation horror to ride on the cape and coat-tails of Blacula and its sequel (reviewed here), he ended up giving his producers an enigmatic meditation on addiction with an improvised Bergmanesque bent and an newly-radicalised African American agenda. It earned rave reviews at Cannes, but wasn’t what the producers ordered. They responded by re-editing it (excising all of the arty bits) and releasing it as Blood Couple (as well as Double Possession and Back Vampire amongst others) for the drive-in and grindhouse circuits. Gunn was furious. And so should have been.
Gunn’s marginalised masterpiece ended up fading into obscurity, while the director himself died prematurely in 1989 (from encephalitis). But thanks to film historian David Kalat, a director’s cut of the film was eventually released in 1998, followed by a HD version in the US under the Kino label. Now, the film gets it UK debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Eureka! Entertainment.
An important work in African-American cinema, Ganja & Hess is much more than just a failed horror movie experiment. Inspired by Gunn’s vision, film-maker Spike Lee has even filmed a remake, entitled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which hits US cinemas in February 2015.
Ganja & Hess is certainly difficult to digest in one sitting (especially the lengthy monologues), but it’s worth the effort. The images are many and multi-layered, fired by the director’s imagination and intellectual agenda; while the soundtrack is a fusion of soul and gospel, droning psychedelia, and primal screaming. The 16mm and 35mm film stocks used give the images a hazy, dreamlike quality that’s entirely suited to Gunn’s maverick style. And its worth noting that both George Romero’s Martin (1977) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) share its gritty low-budget look and vampiric/addiction themes.
Cult film fans will recognise Duane Jones from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. He was actually working as a teacher at the time and only did the film as a favour for Gunn; while the guy playing Ganja’s well-endowed lover was in fact a teacher friend of Johnson’s. Ganja & Hess (yes it is a play on the word hash) is a must-have for any serious cult film collection.
THE UK DUAL FORMAT RELEASE
Ganja & Hess is available on Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) from 26 January 2015 in the UK from Eureka! Entertainment, and this what you get:
• 1080p high-definition transfer of the original 16mm film elements, presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio
• Optional English subtitles
• Audio commentary, recorded in 1998, with producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon . This is hugely informative and very entertaining, and helps fill in those gaps about the what the film is about. It was also included on the 2012 Kino release.
• Select scene commentary with David Kalat
• The Blood of the Thing. David Kalat leads a 29-min interview-based documentary. Very basic, but informative. It also appeared on the Kino release.
• Gunn’s original screenplay available via DVD-Rom and BD-Rom.
• Reversible Sleeve
• 24-page booklet featuring an essay on the history of the film and a vintage letter written by Gunn to the New York Times in 1973.