Ganja for Halloween
For a while, it seemed as if the picture were slated for oblivion. In the early 1970s, Gunn was an up-and-coming actor-writer-director who’d had brief appearances on episodic TV and wrote two perceptive screenplays about race relations: Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970) and Ján Kadár’s The Angel Levine (1970). Young and Black, Gunn infused an airy knowingness into characters and situations which, in other hands, would’ve been bored away at piously and likely without his glib sense of humor.
After writing and directing the shelved (and presumably lost) Stop (1970), Gunn was given the opportunity to make a Black vampire movie by a small distributor impressed by the box office for Blacula (1972), a horror exploitation hit at the time. What Gunn delivered, however, was no Blacula. As the so-called Blaxploitation genre was running rampant (mostly comprised of mindless action fodder), he used Ganja & Hess to address any number of pertinent issues facing Blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, from drug addiction to servitude, education to capitalist propriety, bourgeois gluttony to spiritual ideology, to the selling out of principles and kowtowing to the system, of ‘letting go and letting God.’
All of which wafts between the lines of a story about a wealthy doctor infected with the ‘disease’ of vampirism and his pilfering blood from health clinics, later killing and draining people, to his marriage to a soul mate who carries the curse after his redemption. Relatively inexperienced and surely under-financed (the budget was $300,000), Gunn detours from genre standards in favor of an elliptical, quasi-vérité approach. Made before the public’s awareness of AIDS, he probably would have taken a far different tack on his subject just five or ten years later. As it is, Ganja & Hess owes less to the myths surrounding Dracula (or Blacula) than the preoccupation with moral decay found in Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad.
Gunn cast himself in a supporting role as an edgy, doomed catalyst, with Marlene Clark and Duane Jones playing Ganja and Hess. The three come from disparate acting styles: Clark classical, Jones brooding in the Method, and Gunn infused with the naturalism of Cassavetes. The mixture lends an uneasiness which may not have been intended. In one of its fluid, extended takes, a drunk scene between Gunn and Jones is alarmingly claustrophobic in its obvious improvisation (it reminded me of the shaky moments between DeNiro and Keitel in Taxi Driver), while the introduction of Clark, nearly midway through the picture, serves as a reminder of the formalism, humor and glamour of old Hollywood.
Indeed, Marlene Clark was a tragically underemployed actress best known among horror buffs for starring in the low budget obscurity, Night of the Cobra Woman (1972). Seeing her in Ganja & Hess underlines our loss. She contributes to the DVD’s lively audio commentary, as does cinematographer James E. Hinton, who blames her lack of mainstream success on a culture threatened by beautiful and domineering Black women.
At the time it was released, Duane Jones was a cult figure for starring in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Although it came out in 1968, the zombie hit continued to play at midnight in urban markets and college towns for years. A university professor who acted in movies as a second career, Jones passed away from a heart attack at the age of fifty-two in 1988.
Ganja & Hess opened in April, 1973, at Manhattan’s upscale (and now defunct) Playboy Theatre, located on 57th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. The reviews were generally negative and it closed within a week. There were few supporters (among them James Murray in The Amsterdam News), and James Monaco wrote at length about the film and its subsequent truncated versions (under the campy titles Blood Couple and Double Possession) in his book, American Film Now (1979). By the late-1970s, only one or two complete versions of the film were believed to exist.
“The artistry for which it strives,” wrote A.H. Weiler in The New York Times during its original run, “is largely vitiated by a confusingly vague mélange of symbolism, violence and sex.” His position is not entirely unfair, at least as far as the customer expecting a Dracula movie is concerned. Less melodrama than meditation, Ganja & Hess is one of those rare experiments that flex the fundamentals of narrative to include a wide range of emotions and ideas.
The details that flow randomly throughout, from Jones’s stoic approach to his character’s hedonism, to Hinton’s carefully lit photography (it was filmed in super 16mm and blown up to 35), Sam Waymon’s music, and Gunn’s eye for set and location, grow more rewarding with repeat viewings. The subtleties and nuance of African heritage, with their conflicting ties to European culture, carry a sense of alienation that makes Hess’s move to God seem all the more natural. As the preacher, Waymon (brother of jazz great Nina Simone) shares a pivotal moment for Jones, in the throes of an apparently genuine spiritual awakening.
Despite all these qualities, Ganja & Hess marked the end of Bill Gunn’s directing career. He appeared in Losing Ground (1982), a comedy also with Duane Jones, and had a recurring role as Homer on The Cosby Show in the late ‘80s. He died in 1989 at the age of fifty-five, surely conscious of Ganja & Hess’s cult (it played annually at the Museum of Modern Art). His contribution to Black American cinema is vital, however, and should not be overlooked.
Ganja & Hess Written and directed by Bill Gunn. Cinematography by James E. Hinton. Edited by Victor Kanefsky. Music by Sam Waymon. With Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon. 113 minutes. Originally released in 1973. DVD bonus features include an audio commentary, restored footage, a featurette on the history of the production, a photo gallery, the original screenplay and an article by Tim Lucas and David Walker.