On Matters of Sex, Religion, and Identity: ‘Ganja & Hess’

Writer/director Bill Gunn’s cult classic Ganja & Hess is a strange artifact. A blaxploitation horror take on a vampire tale, the written introduction that appears on screen tells you the basic plot. A well-known anthropologist, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, in his only starring role other than Night of the Living Dead) is stabbed three times by his assistant George (played by Gunn), once for the Father, once for the Son, once more for the Holy Ghost. Instead of dying, Hess becomes immortal, and addicted, addicted to blood.

Intended as a low-budget genre effort by the people who bankrolled the film, Gunn instead, set out to use this framework to craft a story full of symbolic imagery, abstract philosophical concepts, and challenging ideas of sex, religion, and cultural and racial identity. Above all other aims, Gunn set out to make a story about addiction. All of this he attempts to cram into a film that is part horror, part exploitation, and that bounces between schlocky genre fare and near hallucinatory stylistic flourishes.

Unhappy with the esoteric original cut, the financiers hacked the film apart and recut it as an erotic vampire thriller. Gunn’s original was named one of the best films of the decade at Cannes in 1973, but the edited version of Ganja & Hess was so butchered that most of the filmmakers involved—including Gunn, producer Chiz Schultz, and editor Vic Kanefsky—removed their names from the film.

Ganga & Hess is indeed a bizarre film. Characters, especially Gunn, go on extended tirades that spiral off, on the verge of losing control. You know there’s an intended point, an argument in there somewhere, but you’re never quite sure exactly what the end game is. When Gunn’s character recounts an incident on a movie set in Holland, you feel like he’s getting to some larger end, or at least trying to, but never does.

The somewhat garbled rhetorical nature is only heightened by the photography, editing, and, especially the score. Ganja & Hess is infused with a psychedelic soul sound that creates an atmosphere of dissonance that borders on disorienting. A sonic wave sweeps you up and whips your head around. When a character is only partially framed, like when Hess and George talk—all you see of George are his feet, dangling from a tree next to the noose he intends to use to hang himself—you feel like they’re talking to themselves.

In this same vein, you often only see one side of a conversation. Sometimes not even that. Hess and Ganja (Marlene Clark) have a conversation. She is heard, but remains unseen. He is shot from the back, against a near blinding backdrop of sunlight, and is little more than a silhouette. You’re not even sure if his mouth is moving. Much of the film feels like dialogue superimposed over a montage of almost random imagery. The film builds to disorienting crescendos, full of blood and mayhem, then crashes back to a relatively calm base, only to rise and through the motions again.

Sounds and images are juxtaposed, time jumps around, entire scenes could be cut entirely, and a soul singer croons about drinking blood. Ganja & Hess is as frustrating as it is intriguing. It is not an easy film to decipher, and even then not all of the arguments are entirely coherent and well formed. Still, it is worth checking out for fans that want to experience an intellectual piece of genre exploitation.

Ganja & Hess is now available on Blu-ray from Kino International. This is the remastered version of Bill Gunn’s original cut of the film, presented as he intended. The disc comes with a thorough collection of bonus features to help you decipher what is a layered movie that at times is both nuanced and jumbled.

The Blood of the Thing, a 29 minute documentary, features interviews with many of the key players on Ganja & Hess. Gunn passed away in 1989, but Chiz Schultz, Vic Kanefsky, and many more show up to give you a background on the film. You learn how it came together, and how it was subsequently torn apart. An audio track with Schultz, star Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton, and composer Sam Waymon, and an essay on the making of the film, go into even more depth on the history and background of the film. The tale of how Ganja & Hess came to be is almost as interesting as the film itself.

RATING 6 / 10