Ganja & Hess (1973)

Genres - Drama, Fantasy, Horror  |   Sub-Genres - Urban Drama, Addiction Drama, Blaxploitation, Melodrama, Psychological Drama, Supernatural Horror  |   Run Time - 112 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Mark Deming

Ganja and Hess is a film that exists in an odd sort of limbo -- while a handful of fans (among them Spike Lee, James Monaco, and Tim Lucas) consider it a masterpiece, the film has been so inaccessible for so long that plenty of knowledgeable film enthusiasts have never even heard of it, and until recently most interested film buffs were forced to make do with the incoherent short version of the film (variously titled Double Possession, Blood Couple, and Black Vampire, among other things) which was ineptly re-cut to more easily sell the picture as a horror film. But Bill Gunn's original edit of Ganja and Hess (now thankfully available on DVD) not only doesn't play by the rules of a horror film, it eagerly confronts the formal structures of American genre filmmaking in general. Ganja and Hess is a film about addiction, not vampirism; and as Hess Green's dependence on human blood grows, it pulls him toward a heritage and a mindset that he's preferred to ignore as an educated and assimilated African-American, while his relationship with Ganja Meda at once parallels his dilemma and intensifies it. Ganja and Hess is a elliptical, dreamlike film that often disdains the literal in favor of the imagined or implied, and for a filmmaker with only one picture to his credit, it's a remarkably accomplished and visionary work. With a valuable assist from cinematographer E. James Hinton, Gunn brings a rich and troubling atmosphere to the proceedings, and he draws excellent performances from Duane Jones and Marlene Clark, both of whom are strong enough to make clear just how poorly they'd been used in most of their previous roles. While it's flawed in some small ways, and its pacing begins to flag in the last act, Ganja and Hess remains a singular work from a unique creative mind. If you're hoping for a knock-off of Blacula, you'll be disappointed, but if the notion of Carl Dreyer's Vampyr viewed from an African-American cultural perspective sounds intriguing to you, this is a film you ought to seek out.