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Ganja and Hess

Ganja and Hess(1973)

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A long-rumored artifact of the heady, counter-culture semi-underground-film Nixon era, Bill Nunn's Ganja & Hess (1973) may have been the first film to overtly frame the well-worn myth of vampirism as a metaphor for drug addiction – not merely an ordeal by hunger for the bloodsucker in question, but as a tribulation as well for his or her surrounding loved ones, who are used up and wasted in the process. Sounds like a rich serving of thematic pie, but it doesn't come close to characterizing Gunn's film, which is an anti-horror film in the way Monte Hellman's films of the same era were anti-westerns, dreamy, disjointed, indulgent, and almost ludicrously ambiguous. Made on a paper-route budget amid the original blaxploitation hullabaloo (as was the rather crummy Blacula, released the previous year), Ganja & Hess doesn't tell a story so much as bump into one every now and then while lazing around in a druggy, self-actualizing ramble. What cult the film has acquired since its first release has feasted on the movie's somnambulistic, off-kilter mood, a fusion of misty cinematography, counter-intuitive compositions (sometimes the actors aren't even entirely in the frame), canned sound, Gunn's suave egomania, and the narrative's uncanny ability to ignore its own need for speed. Destined to fail even in the early '70s, Gunn's movie has acquired the patina of a rogue antique, unwanted in its day but evocative and unique years hence.

Duane Jones, the fated hero from the original Night of the Living Dead, plays an archaeologist returned from an excavation who invites his talkative assistant (Gunn) into his mansion for food and shelter (where it is, exactly, we cannot be sure, despite one of the movie's alternate titles being Vampires of Harlem). In the night, the seemingly unhinged assistant attacks the good doctor and stabs him with an ancient knife, infecting him in an undetermined way with blood-thirst. Gunn's wayward loser eventually kills himself – naked, in the bathroom – leaving Jones's stoic hero to brood, smoke and search for victims. Into this dour scenario comes the dead man's irate wife (Marlene Clark), who soon enough loses interest in her forgone husband and falls for Jones, marrying him and becoming a vampire herself.

Or something. Ganja & Hess is a deliberately fractured film, a fugue of notions rather than a propulsive or even transgressive genre riff. Gunn is nothing if not aware of the ironies he musters up: he more or less begins with Christ's claim that "Whoever drinketh my blood will have eternal life," a familiar quote given claws in this context, and continues right to extended sequences of an African-American, gospel-belting evangelical service. In fact, race haunts the film's fuzzy peripheries, with Africa-set dream sequences, music, iconography, evocations of griot culture, and even, with the appearance of a single noose, the ghost of lynch-mob guilt. (Blacula, too, traced vampirism back to the tribal life of slavery-era Africa.) But the points are dulled by the very same air of passionate inertia that makes the movie fascinating. The role in the thematic soup played by the doctor's butler (Leonard Jackson) is tell-tale – much is made of his diligent servitude (though we don't even glimpse his face until more than halfway through), while entire scenes seem comprised of improvised dialogue the other actors must negotiate around his interruptions. What we are to make of this remains a mystery; the film itself feels half-made, semi-conscious and intoxicated.

What remains clear is that in 1973 the world was not ready for the cat-eyed, zesty Clark, who outshoulders look-alike J-Lo, and juices Ganja & Hess with a respectable dose of old-fashioned sex appeal. (It could be observed that, next to the uncommunicative Jones, anyone would come off as a firecracker.) But Gunn's film needed her more than she needed it – it served as no one's career springboard, and the actress's career petered out into infrequent TV roles after the blaxploitation wave and seminal kung fu pulp days were over. (Jones also worked infrequently, usually in homage to his unforgettable debut in George A. Romero's zombie fest.) Gunn, too, was on the road to nowhere, shunted aside by the industry as if he'd never directed this freakazoid at all, and had never written the Oscar®'-nominated 1970 film The Landlord. (He focused mostly on theater in the subsequent years before his death in 1989.) Only the neglected film lingers, in this DVD edition assembled from various sources (including, we're informed, a poor 16mm print). Clearly a labor of love for archivist-DVD maven David Kalat, the disc includes an audio commentary by the surviving filmmakers, restored footage, a making-of featurette with interviews by producer-raconteur Chiz Schultz, an animated photo gallery, Kalat's critical examination of key sequences, and DVD-ROM readings.

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by Michael Atkinson