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Ganja & Hess (1973)

JoeStemme

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Title: Ganja & Hess

Tagline: Some Marriages Are Made In Heaven. Others Are Made In Hell.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror

Director: Bill Gunn

Cast: Marlene Clark, Duane Jones, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon, Leonard Jackson, Candece Tarpley, Richard Harrow, John Hoffmeister, Betty Barney, Mabel King, Betsy Thurman, Enrico Fales, Tommy Lane, Tara Fields

Release: 1973-04-20

Runtime: 110

Plot: After being stabbed with an ancient, germ-infested knife, a doctor finds himself with an insatiable desire for blood.

Note: Actress MARLENE CLARK passed away this week, her Ganja here has a special mystical appeal. The luminous Clark also appeared in SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, THE BEAST MUST DIE, ENTER THE DRAGON and had a recurring role on Sanford & Son. RIP.

GANJA & HESS (1973) - One of the strangest and most unique horror films of its era, not to mention a key title in the history of indie black cinema. Bill Gunn's evocative movie was done no favors by its various edits and releases -- and its shoddy treatment on home video. In addition, alternate titles such as DOUBLE POSSESSION and BLOOD COUPLE have further contributed to it never getting the serious attention it deserves. Spike Lee's little seen remake as DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS gave it a blip of notoriety, but that soon faded.

At its most basic, its a variation on the vampire legend, here with the twist that its a sacrificial blade not a bite that turns one into the undead. An anthropologist, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) researching in Africa comes into possession of the knife and soon is stabbed giving him an unquenchable thirst for blood. Hess lives a comfortable upper class life in a large secluded retreat with his butler George (Leonard Jackson) and various assistants. His need for blood forces Hess to take trips into some of the seedier parts of town to satisfy his addiction. The wife of one of those assistants, the incandescently beautiful Ganja (Marlene Clark), eventually makes her way into Hess' home. Her arrival is awkward and confrontational at first, but, eventually grows into a relationship. Over time, Hess breaks her will and convinces the reluctant Ganja to join him in the ranks of the undead.

GANJA & HESS isn't about the plot. It's the mood, symbolism and atmosphere. The low budget film is very leisurely paced and the acting is iffy at times (both, put kindly). It treads the line between arthouse , horror and semi-professional exploitation picture - often all three in the same sequence. But, the deadening tempo really works here. There's a genuine feeling of the monotonous life of a man (and, eventually, a couple) who is never in a hurry, secure in the knowledge that he/they are immortal. Secure, but, still filled with the dread that they must continue to suckle the life source of others. No amount of re-cutting could ever makes this into a traditionally commercial picture. The various edits often lopped off a half hour or more from the run-time and tried, unsuccessfully, to pitch it as a Blaxploitation film.

Casting Jones who was so memorable as Ben in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a masterstroke - from Zombie hunter to an undead ghoul here. We never see Hess in Africa, but, there is a brief clip of ritual dancers singing an evocative hymn that Gunn uses as a sort of haunting chorus inserted in various points in the movie. The shock scenes are quite frightening in their intensity, however brief they are. The music, photography and sound design are authentically felt. There's a memorable and chilling exchange between the couple when Ganja talks about how cold she feels now that she's joined her partner. Hess deadpans: “You get used to it.”

GANJA & HESS isn't an easy watch. It's slow and offbeat from beginning to the very, very end. But, for those who are willing to immerse themselves in the life of this 'Blood Couple' - it can be a richly rewarding and ethereal experience.

GANJA & HESS is currently available to stream on Kanopy, Showtime and Fubo and for rent on Prime Video and Kino. It's on DVD and Blu Ray (beware edited versions, stick with the Kino disc)
 

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