Ganja & Hess October 14, 2019
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
anja & Hess (1973) is far more earnest and atmospheric than most movies about vampire lovers. The film, written and directed by Bill Gunn, stars Marlene Clark and Duane Jones as the title characters, respectively. Ganja is the wife of Hess’s old assistant, Meda (Gunn). Hess is an anthropologist researching the Myrthians, a blood-drinking African nation. Ganja and Hess don’t become acquainted
casually or nicely, like, say, Ganja delivering Meda a cardigan in the middle of the day after he called her complaining of a chill. A little into the film, Meda, who is unstable, kills himself. Hess hides the body in his basement. Ganja comes looking.
Hess has a reason to be wary. Meda’s death was a rather drawn-out affair. He killed himself specifically after getting into a scuffle with Hess, during which he stabbed the latter with a Myrthian blade. Hess doesn’t die, but he might as well have. Just as the puncture wound begins to heal, a thirst for blood — akin to the people he’s studying — becomes insatiable. He drinks the red stuff for the first time when he discovers Meda in the bathroom, bleeding out from his gunshot wound. Hess gets increasingly reckless after that to assuage his hunger pangs. He steals bags of blood from hospitals; he breaks into apartments and claims victims inside as if he were an eons-old creature of the night.
Ganja is suspicious when she arrives. But her anxieties are for the most part ameliorated by Hess, whom she finds fascinating, charming. Their talks are like games; soon they’re discovering what the other person is like in bed. Ganja’s so at ease with her infidelities that we’re unsurprised to learn that she and Meda were estranged before he vanished. Soon Ganja is moving into Hess's mansion; almost just as hastily has she stumbled on her old spouse’s plastic-wrapped body in the wine cellar. But she’s shocked for about as long as someone can blink; she’s too enamored of her new lover to much care. She and Hess marry.
Ganja is climatically turned into a vampire. There’s later a kinetic, kaleidoscopic sequence in which Hess brings her home an afroed, sinewy young man to feast on, both in the sexual and more literal sense. One hears of all this and might think immediately of schlock. How different is all of this than a campy Technicolor Hammer horror picture, or a feistier outtake from the days at Universal where Béla and Boris reigned?
Gunn doesn’t direct the movie quite like a horror traditionalist might. The film has more in common, I think, with a prototypical John Cassavetes feature. The camerawork, when not seeking to recreate the look and feel of a dream that jerks into darker places, has a documentary-like lamination. The dialogue has a casual talkativeness to it that reminds one immediately of Cassavetes’ famous and recognizable brand of improvisation. I don’t want to invoke Cassavetes too much, though, because Gunn’s style is his. If there are similarities at play, they’re just spiritual. Here, Gunn concocts a distinctive mixture of candid-feeling realism and scattered experimental style. You cannot tell if this is supposed to be a horror film made to have the unlacquered atmosphere of life or if it’s supposed to be one reimagined in the mind of the person dog-paddling through a particularly high-definition fever dream. The movie traverses styles as if it were an explorer, but it’s not disjointed. Ganja & Hess is singular — the work of an artist who wasn’t afraid to swivel around tones and styles and do the swiveling with an unmistakable assurance. I felt like I was in good hands watching Ganja & Hess, even during its more leisurely passages that didn’t quite land anywhere.
The biggest misstep of Ganja & Hess is also one of its better attributes. Its style is restoratively Gunn's — he's a great sensualist. He makes everything we see or hear feel like an attack on the senses. But what he does by way of the senses can bury or at least muck up the obvious allegories at play. The decorations are, I think, distractions, sometimes. The film is of course a creepy commentary on addiction, replete with allusions to how functional someone can appear in spite of their behind-the-curtain struggles with a certain substance and how low the lows can feel. In the best moment in the movie, Ganja delivers a stirring monologue to no one in particular, sharing that her mother’s childhood treatment of her — like she was a disease — has irrevocably damaged her. Gunn is attempting to make clear a potential source of her neuroses, addictions. But the film is too experimental to keep the emotional weight of that one scene consistent. This is a brainy and original movie, but there’s a burdensome aloofness to it. Still, it’s some kind of minor horror masterpiece. Days later, its images haven’t left me. It feels away from time and place, and, most impressively, doesn't altogether need to be rooted anywhere. B