Suburban Grindhouse Memories: GANJA & HESS
SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES No. 4: Bill Gunn: a True Filmmaking Genius.
By Nick Cato
In the early 1970s, “blaxploitation” cinema was all the rage on the grindhouse circuit (be they urban OR suburban). When director Bill Gunn was approached to make a film in the vein of BLACULA, he took the money and did something far more serious. Instead of trying to make an exploitative quickie, Gunn went for the gusto and delivered an artistic deep-thinker that (to this day) has many who see it believing it’s a vampire film. It isn’t. In fact, Gunn went all-out as he wrote, directed, and stars in this surreal, nightmare of a film that requires at least three to four viewings before even half of what it has to say will hit you.
Since I was only five years old when GANJA & HESS was originally released, it was a treat to (finally) see this for the first time at a revival theater last month (April, 2010). This was the first time that I knew–halfway through a screening–that I’d have to see what I was watching again (and as soon as possible) just to keep my train of thought (this turned out to be one of the most challenging films I’ve reviewed yet). So I purchased a DVD the next day and watched it three more times.
The film follows Dr. Hess Green (played by legendary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD star, Duane Jones), his new assistant George (Bill Gunn), and his assistant’s wife, Ganja (the lovely Marlene Clark). Despite what some reviewers have said (I’m assuming they saw one of the several, heavily-edited/re-titled versions), Hess DOES NOT become addicted to blood AFTER being stabbed by his assistant; the very beginning of the film scrolls these titles (over some magnificently eerie music): “Doctor Hess Green … Doctor of Anthropology, Doctor of Geology … While studying the ancient Black civilization of Myrthia … was stabbed by a stranger three times … one for God the Father, one for the Son … and one for the Holy Ghost … stabbed with a dagger, diseased from that ancient culture whereupon he became addicted and could not die … nor could he be killed.” So, for the record, Hess is already addicted to blood when his suicidal assistant George moves in; Hess is a wealthy anthropologist living in a tremendous mansion (African American stereotypes don’t exist in this film, instantly banishing a “blaxploitation’ label from it). He even manages to stop George’s first attempt at suicide; George (apparently aggravated at this) eventually attacks Hess with the ceremonial dagger Hess had brought back from Africa. Hess survives, but George ends up shooting himself in Hess’ bathroom. When Hess discovers George’s body, we see him fall to his knees and lap his blood (the main scene I’m assuming has caused many to label this a vampire film).
George’s wife Ganja shows up at the Hess mansion to wait for her husband (Hess has him stored in a freezer in the basement). And this is where GANJA & HESS truly becomes strange. After discovering her husband in the freezer and assuming Hess killed him, she ends up believing Hess’ testimony of George’s suicide and she helps Hess to bury him.
Ganja & Hess fall in love, get married, and Hess eventually makes her a part of the “Myrthia” tribe, bringing its ‘blood curse’ upon her (one edited version, released in the 80s on VHS as BLOOD COUPLE, gave the film a standard (and false) vampire-film packaging). Things get even stranger when Hess brings a man home for Ganja to feed on (she ends up having an affair with him first) and Hess begins to doubt his Christian roots when he finally begins to feel guilt after feeding from a young mother–guilt that nearly leads him to a nervous breakdown.
It should be pointed out here that while everything I’ve just described is happening, the incredibly spooky score by Sam Waymon, along with some dazzling cinematography (I swear Dario Argento was inspired by much of this) helps to give GANJA & HESS a constant aura of surreal darkness that won’t leave your mind anytime soon. One commentary track I listened to on the “GANJA & HESS: THE COMPLETE EDITION” DVD (Image Entertainment) mentioned that the opening sequence is told from 12 points of view (after re-watching it, I’m betting this is why so many are turned off to the film early on—it’s truly unlike anything you’ve seen before). And this is just one thing that makes GANJA & HESS such a unique–and challenging–film.
GANJA & HESS is a film about religious identification and one man’s realization that he has strayed from the faith of his upbringing. After making peace with God at a church service, he attempts to bring Ganja with him. The film’s final moments feature Hess’ death and Ganja contemplating her own life: to me it’s apparent she likes what Hess has turned her into by smiling when she visualizes the dead man Hess had brought home for her running naked out of their pool. And being a sequel-less film, we’re left to consider and debate if this is so.
Again, this is NOT a vampire film. It’s an intense, unusual study of a millionaire who, despite having all there is to have in this world, is haunted by what lies beyond this life. And yet despite this underlying theme (as well as a church service scene that goes on for WAY too long), I don’t think it was Gunn’s intention to make an evangelical film (and if it was, I’d like to know what church–in 1973– approved of extended shots of full-frontal male and female nudity, pagan blood drinking, and an artistic-look at suicide).
Watch GANJA & HESS. Then watch it again, even if you don’t like it the first time. Despite a few slow stretches, the film has plenty to offer to those who take the time to contemplate and dig out its treasures.
I can’t remember the last time a film has caused so much conversation between my friends and me. GANJA & HESS, despite its all-black cast, is NOT a blaxploitation film. It is a genuine hybrid of horror and art house filmmaking that stands alone. It can not (and will not) ever be duplicated.
This is a true gem from Bill Gunn, and a gem I’ll surely be revisiting again and again.
© Copyright 2010 by Nick Cato