Wednesday 25 May 2011

Ganja and Hess (1973)

GANJA AND HESS was written and directed by (and co-stars) Bill Gunn in 1973.  It stars Duane Jones (best known as the hero of George Romero's landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)) as Dr Hess Green, a wealthy academic who is stabbed with an ancient African dagger by his assistant George Mada, who then commits suicide.  After the incident Hess finds that he has contracted a disease with symptoms similar to vampirism.  To compound his problems, Mrs Ganja Mada (Marlene Clark) arrives demanding to know where her husband is.

GANJA AND HESS is a difficult film for several reasons.  First off, until recently it was very difficult to get hold of.  Second, if you did manage to get hold of it, as I did, it was usually in a severely cut form which more or less ruined it.  Third, it is deliberately slow-paced and there is little incident.  That third reason is perhaps the most important because GANJA AND HESS has often been lumped in with the blaxploitation films of the 1970s - because it was produced by and concerns black people - and also with the horror genre - because of the vampirism angle.  In actual fact those categorisations, while understandable, are not a particularly good fit for GANJA AND HESS, which is a world away from, say, SHAFT (1971) or THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1974).  It has the grainy look of an experimental feature and the social and emotional concerns of John Cassavetes.  That said there are undeniably horror elements that call to mind other oblique genre films, such as George Romero's MARTIN (1978), which deals with a disturbed young man who may or may not be a vampire, and Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971), in its depiction of vampiric desire. 

Gunn's concerns in GANJA AND HESS are not vampires per se, but the idea of preying upon others.  Hess is shown to be a respected but aloof man who seems distanced from his ethnic roots, surrounding himself with the trappings of the white upper-middle class and even employing a black butler.  Ganja is a woman who having experienced a troubled childhood has become determined to do whatever it takes to survive.  Therefore when she learns Hess's secret she uses it to what she considers to be her advantage.  The two characters, now linked by their shared 'disease', feed off other marginalised characters - black and white - for sustenance.  So the film is perhaps less a celebration of black identity than a critique of the extent to which ethnic minorities are perhaps too ready to prey upon themselves, while at the same time understanding that their often limited opportunities give them no alternative.  It could also be argued that the ancient African dagger that spreads the disease is a metaphor for the curse of being of an African-American in modern US society.

It's an interesting and unusual film then but it's not easy to like.  There are some sequences which go on far too long - sermons at the volunteer church, for instance - and the lack of any sympathetic characters is alienating.  However, the acting is terrific, which is unusual for a semi-experimental low-budget production.  Some of the cinematography too is good - particularly the exteriors - but the interiors are very dimly lit and consequently rather ugly.

I've lost count of the number of times on this blog that I have had to bemoan the fact that directors of quality films have had painfully short careers.  Bill Gunn directed only one more project after this but enjoyed some critical success as a playwright.  He died in 1989, aged just 54.  Duane Jones , despite appearing in two landmark genre movies, also had a short career in acting but became a drama teacher and champion of ethnic theatre.  He too died young, in 1988 aged 52.  Marlene Clark on the other hand had a long and varied career in film and television, including some fondly remembered genre movies including SLAUGHTER (1972), ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) and the daft British horror THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974).

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