African American filmmaker Bill Gunn’s early 1970s artistic, ethnically conscious opus GANJA AND HESS gets the HD treatment on Blu-Ray disc (with a simultaneous standard DVD issue) courtesy of Kino/Lorber.
A black, New York-based archeologist named Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) is engrossed in the study of the ancient African culture of Myrthia, a nation that died out due to a communicable disease related to feeding on human blood. While at his stately home, his off-kilter assistant George (director Gunn) stabs him with a jewel-encrusted, germ-infested Myrthian dagger, and that’s where his troubles begin; he becomes infected with a virus, inducing a need to indulge in the intake of human blood. George decides to commit suicide in Hess’ bathroom, releasing a nice stream of blood for him to sip up off the cold tile floor.
In the meantime, George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark, THE BEAST MUST DIE), fully aware of her husband’s erratic behavior, phones Hess looking for her estranged man. At first he tries to keep her away, fibbing that her husband left his residence, but he soon sends his servant-driven Rolls Royce to escort her back to his home. Ganja and Hess form a strong bond, sexual and otherwise, despite the fact that she discovers her husband’s frozen corpse in a cellar freezer. Ganja and Hess quickly wed (in a backyard ceremony), and he wastes no time in inducting her into his unnatural world of blood addiction and apparent immortality.
Former television actor and artist Gunn had already written several screenplays and directed a feature before the opportunity to direct this film came along. Looking at the project as a stepping stone in his career, Gunn set out to make a black cast vampire film different from the typical rash of blaxploitation horror films which included the highly profitable and enjoyable BLACULA. He certainly accomplished that, as GANJA AND HESS has an usual storytelling approach, is quite arty in execution, and even when the frequent nudity and bloodletting is on display, it doesn’t come off as exploitive. I am probably in the minority, but I never found it to be the esteemed modern or "lost" horror classic which many critics agree it is, but I admit it’s improved on repeated viewings. Shot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm (giving it that gritty look comparable to Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT), the film is overlong, with many sequences dragging out and it's a bit self indulgent for its own good. The film also leans towards a sometimes amateurish, documentary style, which could be an asset to its charm or detrimental to its failure, depending on one’s conception of it.
But GANJA AND HESS is original in its take on using the traditional movie theme of vampirism (exhausted to death even by 1973) and using it as an allegory about substance abuse, all wrapped up in a non-stereotypical effort without the typical caricatures which often showed up in blaxploitation fodder designed for the drive-ins. While the film is not as fun as say, Bob Clark’s DEATHDREAM which took the traumatism of a returning Vietnam vet into an allegory about the undead, it does have a handful of good ideas, bizarre dream sequences and interesting camera work (the capturing of an eclipse during one of Hess’ incidents is worthy of note), despite the budgetary limits of working on locations and some very cramped interiors (it was shot entirely in various parts of New York).
In his only major starring role aside from the one he was immortalized for, the late Duane Jones, gives an understated, credible performance of the modern vampire; a wealthy intellect who prays on hookers, pimps, young mothers and has no choice but to nab blood plasma from a clinic in broad daylight, all due to his accursed affliction/addiction. Jones plays anything but your average vampire. The word is never used in the film, he has no fangs, can roam in the sunlight, and he even seeks sanctuary (and hopefully a cure) at a Christian mass. The alluring and shapely Clark is well cast opposite Jones, and although she appeared in bevy of horror and exploitation films throughout the 1970s (including NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN, SON OF BLOB, SLAUGHTER, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS), this is probably her most memorable role of the bunch.
Familiar comic actor Leonard Jackson, who might be familiar to you as the star of SUPER SPOOK, FIVE ON THE LEFT HAND SIDE and countless sitcoms, is quite funny and site gag-oriented as Hess’ butler/chauffeur, despite not having much dialog. Hefty Mabel King (“Mama” on the essential 1970s sitcom, “What’s Happening”) has a small role as the head-dressed “Queen of Myrthia” in the African flashback scenes; her name appeared prominently in some of the film’s advertising despite her extremely brief screen time. The score by Sam Waymon (who also plays the reverend in the film) nicely blends different styles of music, including jazz and gospel, but it’s the electronic, slightly psychedelic and slightly tribal sounds that really do the trick.
All-Day Entertainment had previously released this 113-minute uncut version of the film before, as opposed to the bastardized, disapproved much shorter cut which was distributed as DOUBLE POSSESSION and BLOOD COUPLE, among other titles. But Kino/Lorber is now duly revisiting it on DVD, as well as the Blu-Ray disc reviewed here. As the utilization of different 35mm elements were combined for the master of this presentation, the HD mastering here varies due to the surviving film sources and the fact that it was shot on 16mm and blown up. The 1080p resolution transfer carries the film in an anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen ratio, with the quality looking presentable overall. Most of the show is covered in excessive grain (due to the blow up process), with most of the color looking fairly correct; some of the scenes which needed to be reinserted from various sources suffer from being faded. Instances of film dirt, scratches, as well as hairlines caught in the film gate are also in check, but this is probably the best the film will ever look. The PCM 2.0 mono track matches the picture in terms of quality; it gets the job done and is about what you expect, with the usual amount of pops and hiss apparent.
The main extras from All-Day’s 1998 DVD release are maintained here, including the half-hour documentary, “The Blood of the Thing”. Film historian and All-Day head David Kalat speaks in front of an audience for a theatrical viewing of the film, which includes producer Chiz Schultz and editor Victor Kanefsky, both who sit down for more candid interviews to shed light on the film’s distribution, its cutting and its late director. The 1998 audio commentary features Schulz, star Marlene Clark, composer/actor Sam Waymon and cinematographer James Hinton. Although there is no moderator, the group stays focused on the film in question, with plenty of anecdotes, insight on director Gunn and lots of technical questions get answered. They all seem very proud of their work on the film, even though the comments at times are gushy (Schulz’ remarks about how innovative the film is, tend to be exaggerated). A still gallery is also included, as are the BD-Rom supplements of Bill Gunn’s original screenplay and an excellent past Video Watchdog article by David Walker and Tim Lucas (accessible on a computer with a BD-ROM drive). (George R. Reis)
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