Duane Jones stars as anthropologist Hess Green, who is stabbed with an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant (Director Bill Gunn), endowing him with the blessing of immortality, and the curse of an unquenchable thirst for blood. When the assistant's beautiful and outspoken wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes searching for her vanished husband, she and Hess form an unexpected partnership. Together, they explore just how much power there is in the blood.
"Blacula" it ain't!
- Ganja and Hess review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 3
If I say "vampire movie with an almost entirely black cast and crew made in 1973", the word "blaxsploitation" will inevitably spring into your mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is (mostly) a lyrical, symbolic art-house film which happens to involve a lot of black people, and happens to be about vampires. Of course, the studio wanted something very similar to "Blacula", and that's what they paid for. What they got was something completely different that the director snuck under the radar, which was why it was lauded by the critics but ignored by the general public, and almost immediately re-edited into a horribly butchered version that most of the people responsible for the original cut disowned, but was the only way you could see it throughout the video age.
So here's the genuine article, though it has to be said that the print, which was undoubtedly the best they could find, is watchable but not exactly perfect. Is it the legendary lost masterpiece a lot of people have claimed over the years? As with almost all films whose reputation rests to some extent on being impossible to see for a very long time, the answer is "not exactly". It's certainly way ahead of its time in its treatment of vampirism as an addiction. On the other hand, it's blatantly obvious that the director really wanted to make a movie about the scourge of drug addiction in black communities, and tailored the subject-matter he was stuck with to put his point across through extremely blunt symbolism.
Especially in the early scenes, the horror of being a junkie is powerfully conveyed, and the fact that the accidental addict is a highly intelligent, well-educated, and thoroughly decent man who nevertheless cannot resist the ghastly craving that makes him act in a subhuman fashion is put across very convincingly by Duane Jones, who you may remember as the hero of "The Night of the Living Dead". Unfortunately, the entire vampire thing is glossed over a bit too casually - apparently you catch it from African magic daggers if some nutter you happen to know stabs you with them for no reason at all. And the later stages of the movie, in which our hero meets the woman of his dreams, make him seem bizarrely indecisive. Does he want them both to live forever as vampires, or both find eternal rest? He seems to change his mind ridiculously quickly. As for the lengthy shots of people running in slow motion through flowers and such, juxtaposed with hammy imagery of blood oozing out of cracked antiques, they just made me wish for a bit less Ingmar Bergman and a bit more Hammer!
At its best, this is a potential masterpiece with a great central performance (I didn't take so much to Marlene Clark, whose big revelatory scene seems very contrived indeed, but maybe that's just me). Some of the vampire imagery is both truly horrific and sufficiently rooted in everyday reality to be even harder-hitting, and the viewer really does get that this is a good man struggling with a very, very bad thing. And then it gets all arty-farty and throws that away. Is Bill Gunn trying to emulate "The Seventh Seal" or "Mean Streets"? Probably both, and I think his undoubted talent would have expressed itself better if he'd paid homage to them one at a time. This is the kind of film where I can see there's something interesting and worthwhile going on, but I can't like it as much as I feel maybe I ought to.