Friday, March 27, 2015

Monster Serial: GANJA AND HESS, 1973


On June 22, 2014, Spike Lee’s Kickstarter-funded feature, DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, screened for the first time. Moments before the screening, it revealed that the film is actually a remake of the 1973 horror-art film Ganja & Hess. There’s an easy joke in here about Lee learning from his experience remaking OLDBOY that if you’re going to remake a cult film, stay away from beloved titles and go for the deep cut.

It’s not all that surprising that Lee was able to keep a lid on his new film’s lineage - relatively speaking, not many people have seen the original Ganja & Hess. And it’s maybe equally unsurprising that the nearly-forgotten film has returned from the dead in a new form, as it seems to have been doing just that over and over for decades.

GANJA & HESS played theaters in its original form for less than a week in 1973 before it was pulled from distribution, re-cut, retitled and forgotten. While the film was pitched (and financed) as a horror flick, it’s closer in tone to Nicolas Roeg’s inscrutable, non-linear THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, which GANJA & HESS predates by three years. Director Bill Gunn’s shooting script allegedly contained more traditional, mainstream horror elements. Gunn later claimed he intended all along to remove most of them, very intentionally leaving a frustrating but weirdly resonant meditation on addiction, cultural extinction and the struggle of the “Blackman” (Gunn’s term) to retain his identity.

We get early hints of Gunn’s preoccupation with the slippery nature of identity: the film begins with a minister (Sam Waymon) discussing his faith in voiceover, accompanied by handheld, documentary-style shots of him commanding a church service. But we soon find out that the minister’s main job is quite different - he’s a driver for Dr. Hess Green (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s Duane Jones), and we learn from some oblique exposition that this well-to-do “doctor of anthropology and geology” is studying artifacts from an extinct civilization of African blood-worshippers called the Myrthians. As the surviving crew members note on the blu-ray commentary, seeing a respected, affluent black man onscreen, being chauffeured around New York in a Rolls Royce, was quite a bit of culture shock, and was likely a hell of a way to start your film in 1973.

Hess studies dead civilizations; Gunn’s camera slyly suggests the doctor is also part of one. That’s about as overtly political as the film gets: there are no rallying cries for equality or quaint-but-clumsy speeches about race, just frame after lonely frame of Gunn’s Blackmen occupying near-deserted bars, sparsely populated streets and big empty rooms. Even dialogue scenes are framed in ways that isolate the individual. As Hess quietly ponders a relic and dreams of ancient Myrthia, there’s a genuine feeling of mournfulness, of mortality, of memory bleeding out into history.

The plot, such as it is, is set in motion when Hess hires George Meda (played by the film’s director) as his assistant. We find out as abruptly as Hess does that Meda is quite out of his mind. After dinner, Hess finds Meda sitting in a tree, threatening to hang himself in Hess’ yard (easily the film’s funniest exchange, in which Hess asks Meda to consider the amount of trouble his suicide would bring to “the only colored on the block”). Meda then gives a long speech about his suicidal impulses with a stalactite of snot dangling precariously from his mustache. In the very next scene, for reasons the viewer is never given, he attacks Hess in bed, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger, an act which transforms Hess into a blood drinker (the word “vampire” is never used in the film).

Thinking he’s killed Hess, Meda takes a bath, brushes his teeth (using his cloudy bathwater), and kills himself. Next, Hess is seen sitting up in bed, no worse for wear, and upon discovering Meda’s body begins to drink his blood. Much of this film can’t rightly qualify as horror, but the sight of Jones slurping congealed blood off the bathroom floor is a moment of genuine revulsion (reportedly for the actor as much as the audience), and says everything the film aims to about addiction.

Meda ends up in Hess’ walk-in freezer, and Hess begins the life of an addict - petty theft from a blood bank, cruising bad neighborhoods for his fix. The commentary isn’t terribly subtle, but it’s delivered with a measured hand. Soon Meda’s estranged wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up looking for her husband. She finds him in Hess’ walk-in freezer. From here the film becomes a kind of love story, before sending the title characters down a road of increasing debasement and self-loathing to feed their craving. As their addiction brings them together, it slowly drains their humanity. METAPHOR!

I’m not quite in the “masterpiece” camp on this film, but I’ve been fascinated by it for over 20 years (I watched a sort of incomprehensible 16mm print back in 1992). On a first viewing, the film often feels a bit patchwork and unwieldy in trying to get even the basic narrative setup across, as if Gunn has so much to say, but is battling his own framework in the process. And his subtext feels at times as confusing as his talky, wandering narrative. The Christian church scenes are messy, sweaty bits of handheld vérité, while the flashbacks/dreams of the Myrthian Queen are shot in loving, elegant slow motion. Is he criticizing the Western European eclipsing of African culture? It often seems so, but the film’s finale suggests otherwise.

Similarly, posing Ganja and Hess as a well-off black couple in 1973 seems a deliberate, progressive stance. But why are they then portrayed as such assholes about their status? Hess’ black butler is a constant object of the couple’s ridicule and derision (and of Gunn’s as well; the director literally robs him of all identity in almost every shot, his head cut off by the top of the frame in nearly all of his scenes). Is he criticizing Ganja and Hess for their bourgeois social status, or the butler for his willing subjugation? Or both? And the film’s final shots are guaranteed to frustrate as much as they resonate.

But what seem like problems with the film begin, on repeated viewings, to feel like stubborn badges of honor. And you begin to realize it’s not that Gunn CAN’T make a more traditional story; he simply refuses to. (There are 17 minutes of deleted scenes on YouTube which connect the details of the evasive plot; Gunn shot them and threw them away.) There are just enough moments in the film to show you that Gunn could have easily gone a more mainstream route: the film is beautiful when it’s meant to be beautiful; the use of ambient sound is innovative, almost masterful. Gunn is not an amateur. But not every movie is willing to meet you halfway. There are films that are fun to watch; Ganja & Hess compels you to watch. There are films that ask more questions than they answer; Ganja & Hess answers zero questions, nor does it aim to. Maybe that’s why it lingers in the brain.

This essay is one of dozens featured in our new
book, "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial."
It’s such a cheap bit of irony that a film rife with subtext about a dying culture devouring itself was carved up and shortened by over 30 minutes to make it more palatable to the blaxploitation crowd. As the legend goes, Gunn took a single print with him to Cannes, where it received a standing ovation and was named one of the ten best American films of the decade (in 1973, but still). New York critics were less impressed, and Gunn’s film was pulled from release after playing less than a week in one theater, after which its distributors hired another filmmaker to re-cut the film into the 76 minute Blood Couple (also released in various formats and markets as Black Evil, Black Vampire, Blackout: The Moment of Terror, Vampires of Harlem, and Double Possession for good measure). Stories vary, but at some point Gunn stashed the uncut print from Cannes at the Museum of Modern Art, and once the original negative was reworked, this became the only surviving print of Gunn’s original cut, and remained so for nearly two decades. (For the whole, amazing history of the film’s rescue from oblivion, check out the great Video Watchdog article by Tim Lucas and David Walker, reprinted on the DVD. Reading it, one realizes it’s nothing less than a miracle that the film exists at all.)

Gunn never directed another film (he started work on the Muhammad Ali biopic THE GREATEST, but was replaced by Monte Hellman). He returned to the stage and television, and ended up on the set of “The Cosby Show” as one of Bill Cosby’s poker buddies. Gunn died in 1989. In the end, the burial of GANJA & HESS perfectly illustrated the kind of cultural extinction which preoccupied the filmmaker.

Fittingly, the film refused to remain buried. A grass-roots movement to restore the film culminated in a DVD release in 1998. Today an even more fully restored blu-ray is available. Amazon will even stream the movie to you for $3.99. And early reviews of DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS suggest that Spike Lee might have given the tale yet another cinematic resurrection. Though reactions from the film’s premiere describe a fun tone that’s light-years from Gunn’s film, the plot descriptions coming out of the initial screening sound eerily accurate to the original. It’s astonishing that we live in a world where GANJA & HESS has been remade, and way more astonishing that said remake might actually be good. But sight unseen, it sounds as if perhaps Lee has engaged the material correctly. And much to my surprise, I’m finding the story of GANJA & HESS calling to me once again.

PHIL NOBILE JR is a writer/director of non-fiction television projects, including the feature-length A&E documentary HALLOWEEN: THE INSIDE STORY (2010.) He is a contributing writer for and its sister print publication, BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH.

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