Eureka released Blacula – The Complete Collection in October and not long after are releasing another African-American take on the Dracula story, Ganja & Hess. There is little else connecting the two films though as Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess is a wholly different animal than the earlier campy, badass blaxploitation film.
Producers first approached Gunn to make something that would cash in on Blacula's success, but the director had no desire to make a cheap bit of exploitation. He had wanted to make a film about addiction though, so decided to take this idea and infuse it into a vampire story. The result is a film with much more artistic and profound ambitions than Blacula and although it came at the height of the blaxploitation boom, it didn't really fit the mold, eschewing the flares and kung fu for experimentation and symbolism. This didn't impress the money men of course, who swiftly handed the print to ‘film doctor’ Fima Noveck, who chopped the near 2 hour film to 78 minutes and retitled it Blood Couple (along several other names as it did the runs around the world), adding previously excised exposition to make something more closely resembling the exploitation flick they'd wanted. It bombed, although the furious Gunn took his original cut to the Cannes Film Festival where it screened in the Director's Week. It was better received there, but still the film disappeared into obscurity until more recent years when Gunn's version was restored for modern audiences. This is what is being released here by Eureka.
Ganja & Hess sees Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead's Duane Jones) stabbed by an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant George Meda (Gunn himself). This makes Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. After Meda commits suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) appears at Hess' mansion looking for him. She falls for Hess' charms and after they marry and Hess passes his 'gift' on to her, the two form an unusual, bloody relationship.
The film may have admirably grand ambitions, but I must admit I didn't find it all that successful. The first 45 minutes in particular are a real chore. The pace is very sedate, with the sombre tone and stoned-seeming performances and dialogue giving off a student film vibe. Technically the film is very hit and miss too, with interesting and effective compositions sitting alongside poorly framed, shaky shots. Admittedly it was very low budget (only $300,00), but it feels quite amateur for much of the time.
Thankfully, once Clark enters the film, it comes alive. Her character takes no shit and her performance is strong and commanding. The film incorporates a slightly clearer plot after she appears too, giving more drive to proceedings. The quality is still inconsistent, but on a whole the second half is more effective.
Another aspect which I thought stayed strong throughout was the music. Sam Waymon's varied and often experimental score makes the more abstract scenes work and helps create a disturbing mood when required. The spiritual song which opens the film is great too and sets the scene nicely, even if the rest of the film frequently derails after that.
You've got to give the film respect for what it was saying and doing at the time though. There are plenty of films today which play on comparing the vampire myth to drug addiction, but I can't think of one made prior to this. Its portrayal of African-Americans is bold for the time too, featuring an intelligent, successful, smartly dressed black protagonist rather than the 'badass', jive-talking drug dealers and private detectives wearing big collars and flared trousers. It addresses the issues of African-American identity by having this well-to-do lead character dragged down by addiction and haunted by his African heritage through dreamy flashes to tribal scenes representing the Myrthian religion (a primal form of voodoo) which is supposed to be the source of his curse. Christianity and the church play a major role too, so it's clear Gunn has a lot to say about African-American culture and stereotypes.
However, as meaningful and ambitious as the content might be, I still couldn't shake the feeling that the standard of filmmaking didn't match it. It felt drearily pretentious for much of the time because the ropey technical aspects and dated experimental techniques haven't held up well. The film gets a lot of love, so maybe a re-watch when the raw nature will be expected might change my mind, but after this initial viewing I was left disappointed. It'll be interesting to see Spike Lee's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus which is out this year, as it seems to be a remake of this by the look of its IMDB description and credits.
Ganja & Hess is out on 26th January in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka. I watched the Blu-Ray version and I must say it looks pretty rough. This is largely due to the 16mm source material. Grain is heavy and the picture is soft compared to features shot on 35mm. Due to the budget and the film's turbulent past, I can't imagine it can look much better though. Audio is a bit rough too, but again it's likely down to the quality of the original recording.
There are a decent amount of special features included. There's a 29 minute documentary by film historian David Kalat called 'The Blood of the Thing'. This is roughly made, but interesting and well worth a watch. Also included is a selected scene commentary with Kalat which again is informative and a great addition. On top of this is a feature length commentary with producer Chiz Shultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon. This is packed full of behind the scenes facts and anecdotes, even if it's a bit too praise-heavy for someone like me who didn't think much to the film. As the film goes on the three main commentators grow looser and closer, making for a fun listen. As is often the case, watching the film with the commentary (although I wasn't following it closely) made me better appreciate the film and made me think a revisit might change my mind a little.
Finally (on top of the usual trailer), as always with Eureka's releases, you get a booklet of essays and behind the scenes images in with the package and this is as well compiled as ever.