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DVD Review
By Ray Young





Ganja & Hess

Bill Gunn’s biting commentary on vampires and humanity,

now on DVD from Allday Entertainment and Image Entertainment

Written and directed by Bill Gunn. Cinematography by James E. Hinton. Edited by Victor Kanefsky. Music by Sam Waymon. With Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon. 113 minutes. Originally released in 1973. DVD bonus features include an audio commentary, restored footage, a featurette on the history of the production, a photo gallery, the original screenplay and an article by Tim Lucas and David Walker.

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  •     Among the bonus features included in the new Ganja & Hess DVD is disc producer David Kalat introducing the restored picture to an audience at a theatre. His forewarning—that this low budget vampire movie defies simple classification and whatever preconceptions they brought in—is an understatement. Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is an oddity, often maddening, frustrating, fascinating, riddled with both flaws and beauty, and bursting with revelations.
        For a while, it seemed as if Ganja & Hess was slated for oblivion. In the early 1970s, Gunn was an up-and-coming actor-writer-director who’d made brief appearances on episodic TV and wrote the screenplays for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) and Ján Kadár’s The Angel Levine (1970)—two perceptive takes on race relations out of liberal Hollywood. Young and Black, Gunn infused an airy knowingness into the characters and situations of two scenarios which, in other hands, would’ve been bored away at piously and surely without his glib sense of humor.
        After writing and directing the shelved and presumably lost Stop (1970), Gunn was given the opportunity to create a Black vampire movie by a small distributor impressed by the revenue generated by Blacula (1972), a horror exploitation hit for American International Pictures. What Gunn delivered, however, was no Blacula. At a time when the so-called Blaxploitation film was running rampant (so much of it was mindless action fodder), he used Ganja & Hess as a forum to address any number of topics related to Black life in white America, from drug addiction to servitude, education to capitalist propriety, bourgeois gluttony to spiritual ideology, to the selling out of principles and kowtowing to the system, of ‘letting go and letting God.’
        All of which wafts between the lines of a story about a wealthy doctor infected with the ‘disease’ of vampirism and his stealing blood, first from health clinics and then by killing and draining people, to his marriage to a soul mate who carries the curse after his redemption. Relatively inexperienced and surely under-financed (the picture’s budget was $300,000), Gunn detours from genre standards in favor of an elliptical, quasi-vérité approach. Made before the public’s awareness of AIDS, he probably would have taken a far different tack on his subject just five or ten years later. As it is, Ganja & Hess owes less to the myths surrounding Dracula (or Blacula) than the themes of moral decay found in Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad.


    Duane Jones and Marlene Clark in Ganja & Hess


        Gunn cast himself in a supporting role as an edgy, doomed catalyst, with Marlene Clark and Duane Jones playing Ganja and Hess. The three come from separate and conflicting acting styles: Clark classically stylish, Jones brooding in the Method, and Gunn pointed toward the naturalism of Cassavetes. The mixture lends the film an uneasiness which may not have been intended. Among its several fluid, extended takes, the drunk scene between Gunn and Jones is alarmingly claustrophobic in its obvious improvisation (could it have influenced DeNiro and Keitel for their moments together in Taxi Driver?), while the introduction of Clark, nearly midway through the picture, serves as a reminder of (or anchor to) the formalism, humor and glamour of old Hollywood.
        Indeed, Marlene Clark was a woefully underemployed actress best known among horror buffs for her starring role in the low budget obscurity, Night of the Cobra Woman (1972). Seeing her now in Ganja & Hess after three decades serves to underline our loss. She contributes to the DVD’s recently recorded and very lively audio commentary, as does cinematographer James E. Hinton, who blames her lack of mainstream success on a culture threatened by beautiful and domineering Black women.
        At the time it was released, Duane Jones was becoming a cult figure as the star of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Although it came out in 1968, the zombie hit continued to play faithfully at midnight in urban markets and college towns for years. A university professor who acted in movies as a second career, Jones passed away from a heart attack at the age of fifty-two in 1988.
        Ganja & Hess opened in April, 1973, at Manhattan’s upscale (and now defunct) Playboy Theatre, located on 57th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. The reviews were generally negative and it closed within a week. There were few supporters (among them James Murray in The Amsterdam News), and James Monaco wrote at length about the film and its subsequent truncated versions (under the campy titles Blood Couple and Double Possession) in his book, American Film Now (New York: New American Library, 1979). By the late-1970s, only one or two complete versions of the film were thought to exist.
        “The artistry for which it strives,” wrote A.H. Weiler in The New York Times during its original run, “is largely vitiated by a confusingly vague mélange of symbolism, violence and sex.” His position is not entirely unfair, at least as far as the customer expecting a Dracula movie is concerned. Less melodrama than meditation, Ganja & Hess is among those rare, atypical experiments that test the fundamentals of narrative structure to encompass a wide range of mixed emotions and random ideas.
        The details that flow randomly throughout, from Jones’s marvelously stoic approach to his character’s hedonistic impulses, to Hinton’s carefully lit photography (it was filmed in super 16mm and blown up to 35), Sam Waymon’s music, and Gunn’s eye for set and location detail, become more rewarding upon repeat viewings. The subtleties and nuance of African heritage, with their conflicting ties to European culture, carry the sense of alienation that makes Hess’s move to God all the more logical and necessary. As the preacher, Waymon (brother of jazz great Nina Simone) shares a pivotal moment with Jones, assisting him in what appears to be an actual, on-screen spiritual awakening.
        Despite all these qualities, Ganja & Hess marked the end of Bill Gunn’s career as a film director. He appeared in Losing Ground (1982), a comedy also with Duane Jones, and had a recurring role as Homer on The Cosby Show in the late 1980s. He died in 1989 at the age of fifty-five, surely conscious of Ganja & Hess’s cult reputation (it played annually at the Museum of Modern Art). His contribution to Black American cinema is vital, however, and should not be overlooked.