Wikipedia describes this as ‘an experimental horror film’ which is an understatement if you ask me. We took an extra day to publish our findings on this week’s choice because of other weekend commitments, but I’m quite glad I had the extra time to process it. It’s something of an enigma and I found myself lost a sea a few times, wondering what the actual fuck was afoot.
Let’s get into it.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
After being stabbed with an ancient, germ-infested knife, a doctor’s assistant finds himself with an insatiable desire for blood.
Directed by: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones • Marlene Clark • Bill Gunn
Uh. So, wealthy Black anthropologist (and rather stunning figure of a man) Dr. Hess Green (Jones) is currently doing research on an ancient African tribe of blood drinkers called the Myrthians. He lives in a stunning abode decorated by Myrthian artifacts where one day he is stabbed by his unbalanced assistant George Meda (Gunn).
Meda had been threatening suicide and Hess managed to talk him down from a tree (where he was planning to hang himself), so it’s a shame when he’s thanked for his actions by being stuck with a rusty (and it turns out infected) Myrthian ceremonial dagger.
George then successfully manages to kill himself in Hess’ guest bathroom. Well, this would be a much shorter film if Hess died but of course he survives, and immediately realises something is rotten in Denmark when his first order of business on finding George’s corpse is to lap up the blood he’s spilled.
For Hess is now – you guessed it – a blood thirsty (and immortal) vampire. He doesn’t seem completely cool with this new development but steals some blood from a local doctor’s office to tide him over while he works out what to do. In a very long scene, we see Hess pick up a sex worker from a local bar which results in him being stabbed again, this time by her pimp (presumably so they can rob him) – but he overpowers and then drinks them. Which is justified, given their nefarious intentions but just emphasises the fact that Hess is going to need human blood, whether he likes it or not.
Later, the absolutely ethereal Ganja (Clark) rocks up looking for her husband, George. She makes the mistake of confusing Hess with his man servant, which luckily he finds amusing, though he tells her George has gone missing rather than the truth – that he’s currently rotting on his cellar floor. She moves in with Hess and they quickly become lovers, no questions asked. After their first night of passion, Hess admonishes Ganja for her direct questioning but they seem to get on famously. That is until she unwittingly stumbles across George’s body in the wine cellar.
Despite her initial upset, Ganja agrees to marry Hess who quickly decides he never wants to live without her, and turns her into a vampire too. This takes some adjustment on Ganja’s part but Hess teaches her the ways of the bat. She brings a hot guy back to the house one day while Hess is away and seduces him before feeding on him. When Hess returns, Ganja is beside herself with remorse and finds it disgusting when he insists they dispose of his corpse in the water.
It seems neither of them are that in love with the vamp life because Hess eventually grows tired and returns to the Christian church. When he gets home after a particularly intense (read: boring to watch) session with the Reverend, Hess kills himself in front of a giant crucifix. How’s the lovely Ganja going to take this loss?
This movie is very hard going, although I really appreciate it’s aesthetic. The story is all well and good but you could accuse it of being light on plot. There are also some very verrrrry slow scenes that drag on forever and add very little to the story.
I got easily confused in the beginning as I couldn’t quite grasp all of George’s shit and why he’s so unsettled – and as far as I’m aware, we never get much of an explanation from him – although it is clear there’s a lot of tension in his marriage to Ganja, who is a) very quick to move on with Hess (no judgement here) and b) happy to let George’s death go.
There are some horribly filmed scenes between George and Hess as they talk, with the man servant (I didn’t even catch his name) getting in front of the camera more than once, blocking our view of the characters. I suppose you can say it gives it a very realistic vibe but it’s distracting.
The acting itself is not that refined but I kind of love Duane Jones who you may recognise from the iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Wiki says this about him:
His role in the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead marked the first time an African-American actor was cast as the star of a horror film, and one of the first times in American cinema where a person of color was given an important role when the script did not explicitly call for one. At the time, casting a black man as the hero of a film where all the other characters were white was potentially controversial. While some saw the casting as significant, director George A. Romero states “Jones simply gave the best audition.”
Cool, huh? He’s very pleasant to watch on screen it has to be said and has a commanding presence I really enjoy.
With the above in mind, I think although G&H wasn’t the most enjoyable experience, it is important viewing for the very fact that horror films centred around not just one Black character but an almost completely Black cast was very rare and special in the sixties/seventies – and still is today. The aesthetic is really fun, Hess’ abode is gorgeous and Ganja’s so elegant, it’s hardly surprising they ended up together.
I also really appreciate the ending, which suggests that our girl is going to go on a live her very best life, regardless of the fates of all the men in her life.