It’s really ironic, when you think about it. Very few of the so-called post-modern horror films celebrated by critics and audiences actually strive to be different from the classic Gothic companions that they pretend to separate themselves from. Sure, many re-envision their stalwart subjects in various newfangled lights, and try to contemporize such graduated folktales. But in the end, the results are still the same. Vampires continue to suck blood, monsters are made out of grave-robbed body parts, and a full moon produces a plethora of wolfmen, each one wearing their joyless gypsy curse on their hirsute human pelts. Maybe this is why Bill Gunn’s esoteric exercise in terror, the sadly forgotten Ganja and Hess
, is so striking. When we hear it was supposed to be a combination of blaxploitation and bloodsucker, we settle in and expect the worse – or perhaps Blackula Part 2
. Instead, we get a devastating art film that raises more intriguing philosophical questions than hairs on the back of one’s neck.
Part of the reason for the movie’s minor present day status stems directly from the reaction it received when first viewed by distributors, and then completely unprepared New York audiences. When they hired the off-Broadway actor and accomplished screenwriter Bill Gunn to helm their horror film, newly formed Kelly-Jordan Enterprises were looking to break into the urban market, a seemingly endless cash cow triggered by Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. With the success of black-themed horror, an idea was hatched. Combining the elements of exploitation being used to foster the ghetto films with a bit of Bram Stoker, Gunn’s instructions were simple. Meld the two concepts and deliver a commercial script. What the company got instead was a surreal story about a rich doctor whose stabbed with an ancient blood cult’s ceremonial dagger. It leaves him immortal, indestructible, and addicted to blood.
Much to Dr. Hess Green’s horror, his stature in life allows him the almost legal, leisurely pursuit of his particular natural narcotic. When potential victims aren’t merely inviting themselves into his house, they proposition him in bars or on street corners. Once fed, the high minded scholar with an erudition beyond his urges looks for ways to curb his cravings. When the wife of one of his supply sources turns up asking questions, Hess senses someone capable of sharing his secret with. But this means he will have to turn Ganja Meda into what he’s become. In the interim, a battle of wills ensues, with Ganja’s money grubbing ways running roughshod over almost everything in Hess’s life. He seems to love her, but this could also be a cautionary move to keep her close – and confined. She, on the other hand, has never once fended for herself. Instead, she relies on the kindness of suckers – and Hess has got the closet skeletons to settle her accounts quite nicely.
Reluctantly, Kelly-Jordan approved the storyline, and soon Gunn was helming his first feature. But, as a bad Borscht Belt comic might say, a final thing happened on the way to the final cut. Inspired by the collaborative process he was experiencing with Producer Chiz Schultz, actors Duane Jones and Marlene Clark, Director of Photography James E. Hinton and Editor Victor Kanefsky, Gunn decided to completely reimagine his movie. Gone were long passages of exposition, unnecessary moments of clichéd horror, and anything obvious or overt. In their place, Gunn imagined a “Ingmar Bergman” style experience, with arcane symbolism and complex themes. He would twist certain subjects – sexuality, addiction, religion – into intricate statements of subtle surreal purpose. He would then add to the context by purposefully messing with the rigid requirements of cinema. Not only would he deliver a fright film unlike any ‘70s audiences had seen before, he would attempt to rewrite the language of film as well.
For the most part, he succeeded. Ganja and Hess is more a meditation on spirit and suffering than a sinister sampling of some notorious neckbiters. Gunn made his movie a crisis of conscious rather than a full blown exercise in fear. There are no big scenes of bloodletting, no moments of cryptic commentary about “the children of the night” or fluttering fake bats. Certainly, the sensuality surrounding the vampire legend is more or less intact, given a daring homo/hetero sexual connotation all throughout the film. There was even a suggestion, mentioned by both Victor Kanefsky and Chiz Schultz on the recent DVD bonus features (a very fine release from the always reliable Image Entertainment) that this was really a ménage a trios gone grisly. Hess entertains both Ganja and her psychologically fragile husband George, and there are moments where the men seem more than mere co-workers. Still, in keeping with this movie’s motives, nothing is spelled out or explained.
Gunn also included a couple of creative elements that keep the audience constantly off guard. Hess has a butler named Archie, and when he’s not storming around the estate in a series of ritualistic maneuvers, he’s giving and getting a hard time from his employer’s new live-in lady. Similarly, Hess also employs a local minister as his chauffer, a right minded man named Reverend Williams who is constantly calling on God to right the wrongs of the world and support the righteous while smiting the wicked. We keep waiting for the stereotypical moment where the man of the cloth uncovers the evil right underneath his eyes and does his Christian quack voodoo to set everything right. Oddly enough, this doesn’t happen. Instead, both Archie and the preacher play their parts perfectly, merely minor catalysts in the film’s final, flummoxing denouement.
Without the fright formulas in place – the standard cheap shocks, the nods to cinematic scares from decades past – Gunn created a true post-modern masterwork. And like any artistic effort, it was embraced by some and slighted by all the rest. Indeed, upon witnessing the commercially worthless effort Gunn gave them, Kelly-Jordan halted the release (the movie played for less than a week in one NYC theater), hired a new editor and savaged the director’s vision. Utilizing material from the original script that Gunn shot and then rejected, the resulting revamp was indeed more like the concept the company had contracted for. But the newly named Blood Couple was equally unliked by audiences, left to play the dying drive-in circuit to earn back its budget. Gunn would sort of have the last laugh. Taking his original version to Cannes (it is this delightful director’s cut that Image now offers, thanks to the efforts of All Day Entertainment), Ganja and Hess won a standing ovation – and a great deal of critical respect – from the French film aficionados.
It definitely does deserve the praise. In an era (the ‘70s) known for cinematic invention and motion picture experimentation, the avant-garde nature of Ganja and Hess makes it an initially off-putting experience. Sadly, this is our fault as an audience, not that of the film itself. Indeed, one needs to wipe away all preconceived notions before entering this movie, and it’s not just the ideas about blood sucking vampires and supernatural shivers. No, a new pair of eyes and a reconfigured eerie ethos are needed to really appreciate what Gunn was doing. He is making a movie of thoughts instead of plots, visualizing his meaning in stark, surprisingly passionate particulars. He wants you to feel the disconnect of the characters, to sense Hess’s growing hatred of his personal predicament as well as the spiritual battle for his soul. In addition, he attempts to mimic the way in which true macabre would function in the modern world. That’s why scenes seem half completed, conversations merely overheard or lacking clear context.
The result is a real surprise, one of the genre’s fiercest forgotten gems. Taking so many unexpected twists and turns that it literally leaves the viewer breathless, Gunn gives the Nosferatu notion the contemporary tweaking that so many well meaning moviemakers simply avoid. By purposefully placing his narrative in a minority arena, the director delivers a more human and heartfelt aura to his approach, and the acting by Dwayne Jones and Marlene Carter is incredible, pushing the possibilities even further. When she tells Dr. Green that his driver can’t possible miss her – she’s the ‘most evil’ lady around, it’s not just a threat, it’s a promise. And at the end of the story, we sense our good doctor was played from the moment Ganja arrived. Sadly, Gunn’s desire to see his original resonate with an audience had to go mostly unfilled. He died before work on this DVD even began. Still, for a storyline so strongly attached to both the supernatural and the soul, the newfound affinity for Ganja and Hess is probably making its creator very proud. Even posthumously, he and his film deserve it.