Tuesday, 12 May 2015

May Sucks: Ganja & Hess (1973)

Ganja & Hess (1973)
Director: Bill Gunn
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, and Bill Gunn
Running Time: 97 min

  Director Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing, School Daze) recently remade this film and I thought I'd check out the original before I watched the remake.  I'm really excited to see this because it was chosen as one of the ten best American Films of the Decade at Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and it's not suppose to be the usual sploitation film that was being churned out in the 70's.  On top of that, Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead, Beat Street) is also in this, so this should be awesome!

  Dr. Hess Green invites a George Meda to his lavish estate for the weekend.  George has been having mental issues and has been suicidal for a while now.  The two have dinner and chat and then head off to bed.  In the middle of the night, George attacks Hess while he's sleeping and stabs him with a cursed knife containing ancient germs.  George heads to the bathroom, finds his revolver and then shoots himself in the chest.  He collapses on the bathroom floor and bleed out til he is dead.  This guy is the worst house guest ever.  However shortly after all the violence, Hess awakens from the dead, his wounds healed and he wanders into the bathroom to find a dead naked George Meda lying on the floor.  Confused, shocked and a little hungry, Hess wallows in this sorry by licking up the tasty blood that George has left on his bathroom floor. Ewww!
  Hess is now a vampire, kind of, he can got out during the day but he needs to drink human blood.  He tries at first to rob blood banks but his hungry deepens and eventually he ends up preying on the impoverished and  the criminal element of the city.  Eventually, he gets an interesting call from George Medas' wife, Ganja Meda, wondering what has happened to her husband.  Hess lies and tells her that he ran away and has no idea where he is, so Ganja invites herself to stay at Hess's house until he comes back.
  When Ganja arrives, she is rude to Hesss' butler, Archie and well everybody.  She demands to know what happened to her husband and knows that Hess is not telling her the whole story.  She stays for a few weeks, maybe days, I can't tell, and her and Hess start having an affair.  One day, while Hess is getting his blood thang on, Ganja wanders down to the wine room, aka the cellar, and finds the body of her dead husband frozen in a closet.  This scares the hell out of Ganja so much that afterwards, she marries Hess.  Makes sense.
  The couple is so happy, Hess wants to turn Ganja into a vampire so they can live together forever.  Soooooo, he kills her with the same ancient dagger with the cursed germs.  She returns for the dead but they find now that their relationship just isn't the same.  Can this vampire couple make it in this mixed up world or will days of feeding on the hot blood of humanity end quickly and just?

  This wasn't bad but it was very confusing at times.  However there are a couple of reasons for this, the main being that after the film was completed, it was re-edited without writer/director Billy Gunn's (Stop, Personal Problems) approval from 113 minutes to 78 minutes, destroying the original negative but luckily the fine folks at Kino were able to find some available 35mm prints of the original film and they were able to piece together an extended version of this film.  Which is really sad because I'm sure that this film would have made a lot more sense at times and film fans could see Gunns' intended vision of this story.
  Still, it was not really what I was expecting either but in a good way.  It doesn't really fall into cliches of most 'sploitation films and it's not just a rip off of a classic horror monster.  Like William Marshall in "Blacula", Duane Jones, who plays Hess, gives his vampire character a certain class and elegance to the creature that is reminiscent to original story.  Also, even though the relationship between Ganja, played by Marlene Clark (Enter the Dragon, Beware! The Blob) and Hess is a little fast and strange, their love does come across on the screen and you feel sorry for these two doomed lovers by the end.  On a side note, there are some very amusing scenes with Clark playfully giving Leonard Jackson (Brother From Another Planet, The Color Purple) who plays the butler Archie, a hard time.  The two play well off each other comically and because it such a dark, weird arthouse film, this breaks a little bit of the tension.

  The beginning is very confusing and the film starts with a preacher narrating, who you think is going to be the main character but he disappears until the near end of the film.  Maybe this was a portion that was miss cut, as previously mentioned before but it is pretty jarring and a disconcerting way to start a film.
  Also, they're not very clear about what Hess does or his relationship with George Meda or even why there is a cursed dagger in the house.  Their is no, "You know Hess, After our last Anthropological dig, I cut myself with this cursed dagger with some crazy ancient germs and I've been feeling funny and drinking blood, y'know." or stuff like that.  There is no lead up to it and the attack is very unexpected.  Also, the editing doesn't help because a lot of the time you don't know if this is happening in the present, past or what is really going on.  Time and a more of a linear feel to the film, only really begins once Ganja enters the film.  Then there is a much better flow, still a little jerky but we're on the train to horrorville.
  Finally, the ending is very weird and I may not understand the vampire mythos and rules that Mr. Gunn is adhering too but they don't follow any normal ones that I can recall.  Which is okay because it's his story and he can create whatever he wants, it's called artistic expression.  However, some people may think that it is a little too far out there.  So be aware going into the film.

  Although this film has a very rough start at the beginning, for whatever reason, it does pull itself together a third of the way in.  There is a classic story of love, romance and horror that comes across here but sometimes it does get muddled by strange edits and bizarre cuts.  There is some good acting when the director/editor allows for these talents to share the screen and some terrifying imagery to boot.  So, if you're looking for a different kind of 'sploitation film that has an unusual twist on the vampire story, than look no further than this. (I couldn't find a trailer for this film, so, I've included a clip)


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