A cult-fave movie whose enviable reputation might have more to do with novelty and obscurity than actual cinematic merit, Ganja & Hess is almost certainly the most experimental of all black-vampire movies; it’s closer in spirit to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1931 surrealistic epic Vampyr than to the campy blaxploitation joint Blacula. Written and directed by theater-trained artiste Bill Gunn, who apparently was hired to make a straight monster movie but took the production down a different path, Ganja & Hess is a strange meditation on the anguish of addiction and the difficulties African-Americans face in retaining their cultural identity.
The movie is as formless and languid as a dream, so even though Ganja & Hess delivers many standard horror elements, such as bloody knife attacks and gruesome scenes of characters lapping up plasma, it’s clear from the first frames that Gunn is trying to create an artistic experience instead of a horror show. Whether he achieves his goal is up to each viewer; some cinephiles consider this picture an unsung masterpiece, but there’s no way to overlook the ineptitude of the film’s technical execution. The cinematography is grainy and erratic, with some shots artfully composed and others seemingly rushed; the sound recording is abysmal; and the acting is all over the place.
Leading man Duane Jones, best known for his starring role in Night of the Living Dead (1968), cuts a striking figure with his expressive face and lean build, but he’s not particularly charismatic. Leading lady Marlene Clark has mesmerizing eyes, but some of her line readings are so amateurish they shatter whatever illusion Gunn is trying to create.
As for the story, it’s the usual bloodsucker lore, but with a multicultural twist. The tale begins when a scientist (Jones) gets stabbed with a knife bearing the ancient curse of an African tribe. Even though the word “vampire” is never used in the movie, the curse gives the scientist an insatiable thirst for blood. Despite his affliction, he falls for and marries the wife (Clark) of his assailant, leading to her inevitable indoctrination into the world of vampirism. Since the story is rather trite, what makes Ganja & Hess noteworthy is the way Gunn weaves cultural, psychological, and sexual symbolism into the narrative.
Montages feature characters writhing in pain or pleasure while Gunn dissolves to shots of African tribal rituals or other such visuals; these scenes are fused by a fevered soundtrack blending atonal music, driving rhythmic patterns, and weird utterances like grunts and screams. Gunn also uses awkward jump cuts within scenes, perhaps because he’s trying to simulate the strange sense of time that someone who cannot die might experience. The sum effect of Gunn’s art-house flourishes is that Ganja & Hess feels like a bizarre hybrid of intellectualized style and lame-brained content. Some may find this thrilling, and some (like me) may find it dull and pretentious, but Ganja & Hess is inarguably unique.
Ganja & Hess: FREAKY