The story behind Ganja & Hess is certainly a fascinating one – on the surface, a classic example of art vs. commerce in Hollywood, with director Bill Gunn hired to shoot a Blaxploitation vampire film in the style of Blacula and instead turning in an obtuse, personal art movie that was the re-edited by philistine producers and tossed onto the grindhouse circuit under a variety of titles – Double Possession, Blood Couple – and seemed lost forever until the original cut was unearthed and revived.
It’s the sort of David vs. Goliath story that everyone, myself included, loves. But there’s a side to this story that prevents me from seeing the producers as the bad guys here. It’s the whole ‘hired to shoot a Blaxploitation vampire film’ part. After all, Gunn was taken on to do a job, and by the admission of everyone involved, seems to have disregarded both his own screenplay and the brief from the people paying for the project in order to indulge himself. The ‘commercial’ cut, which I haven’t seen (and I wish I had, so I could compare and contrast) seems to have been an attempt to reconstruct the film as written and salvage a conventional, commercial horror movie from the scenes that Gunn shot and then discarded, rather than simply hacking away at the director’s cut. Our instincts might be to praise the artist for sticking it to The Man, but isn’t this essentially like hiring a decorator to paint your house in neutral colours and then finding he has filled the walls with Day-Glo murals featuring dragons? Would anyone simply shrug and say “well, that’s his artistic vision?” When you hire – and pay – someone to do a job, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to be upset if they then don’t do it. I can’t honestly condemn the producers for what they did, no matter how visionary the delivered film might be.
Still, regardless of who – if anyone – is the bad guy in this story, it’s always good to see a film restored to the director’s original cut. Four decades on, the only thing that really matters is whether or not the film works. And I’ll say yes, it does – though it’s a cautious approval. Certainly, the film seems to have benefitted from a degree of over-praise, as often happens when long lost titles are finally restored. Ganja & Hess is good. Very good. But it’s not great.
If you come to Ganja & Hess expecting a horror film – at least a conventional horror film – then you will probably be very disappointed. Although ostensibly a vampire story, the film has more in common with the works of people like John Cassavetes, with its semi-improvised style, documentary look and free-form narrative that is non-linear, fractured and deliberately confused. Describing the story is almost a pointless affair. At the heart of the film is the tale of Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones), who is stabbed with an ancient, bone-like knife by his unstable assistant George Meda (played by director Gunn) and thus transformed into an immortal blood drinker (I’m not sure the word ‘vampire’ is ever used). Meda kills himself and his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) arrives from Amsterdam, initially looking for him but seemingly unfazed by his disappearance. She and Hess start an affair, and he brings her into the world of the blood-drinking immortals. But their attitudes towards immortality and sexuality seem to differ.
The opening scenes on Ganja & Hess cram a great deal of exposition – essentially all the conventional horror stuff – into captions, fast cut scenes and theme songs that seem designed to both confuse and alienate the casual viewer. Not that the rest of the film is any less challenging, but these pre-credit scenes are something of a baptism of fire. Make it through the first five minutes and you are probably set for the rest of the movie.
Gunn mixes the occasional action, horror and sex scene – the stuff the money men presumably wanted – with long moments of dialogue, awkward character interactions and static images that create a strange and unsettling atmosphere more than propelling the story forward. In fact, the film is all about atmosphere. The story seems secondary (a least) to the sense of weirdness and displacement that the film has. Sometimes, this works extremely well, sometimes it doesn’t. But the overall effect of the movie is to pull you into a very strange world that seems entirely outside normality.
I’m not sure I could say that Ganja & Hess is entertaining, as such. While it resembles Cassavetes in style, Gunn doesn’t have the characters or the authenticity – or, perhaps, the talent – that makes Cassavetes’ films work so well. His exploitation elements clash wildly – and only sometimes successfully – with his experimental, free form cinema style, resulting in a film that is continually fascinating, always watchable but not a great deal of fun. Not that I imagine ‘fun’ was the thing Gunn was going for.
Certainly, the film has some striking, startling visual moments. It has one of the most realistically icky ‘blood spurting from a wound’ scenes I’ve ever seen (ironically, most of the other blood spilling scenes have that peculiar bright red 1970s film blood in them), while the scenes of the blood-drenched naked lovers, the killing of possible Hess replacement Archie (Leonard Jackson) and Hess’ search for redemption and release at an evangelical church all have a disturbing, unsettling and unforgettable quality to them. Even an early scene of Hess and Meda talking as the latter sits in a tree engaging in paranoid fantasies puts the viewer in a place of discomfort, in only because it challenges our ideas of what cinema is supposed to look like (static cameras, rambling dialogue, one character only visible from the waist down). These moments, these aesthetic stabs are what make the film fascinating even as it frustrates.
Ganja & Hess is very much of its time, and ultimately, how much you will relate to the film will probably depend on how much you like free-form early Seventies American indie cinema. It’s a fascinating example of the strange collision of experimental filmmaking and the mainstream that took place at the time – an art-house genre piece before such things were commonplace. It’s intriguing, memorable and unique, and for that alone is worth a look, even if I can’t really say it’s an unqualified success.