Ganja and Hess (1973)

Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is a renowned archaeologist who has been investigating the ancient Myrthian culture of Africa. To help with his research he is paired with a new assistant, actor George (Bill Gunn). George, however, turns out to be a mite unstable. After a failed suicide attempt earlier in the night, George stabs Hess with a Myrthian dagger and then shoots himself.

Only problem is, germs have clung to the dagger to the current day, and the microbes bring Hess back to life - with a craving for human blood. He attempts to maintain appearances while his butler Archie (Leonard Jackson) looks after his affairs. Things become even more complicated when George's wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) arrives looking for her husband. Hess decides to keep the suicide a secret as he and Ganja gradually fall for each other.

Ganja, though, turns out to be a complicated woman. Having suffered through a rough childhood, she has a possessive streak, but a tendency to be restless. Hess, however, wants her to be his forever, so he stabs her with the dagger, making her the same as him. She is not pleased in her new state, especially after finding out that Hess has been keeping her husband's death a secret. She quickly begins looking for a way out of her predicament.

That way is found by studying the ancient legends of Myrthia, which tell that the population suffered heavily from the affliction and only overcame it by severe religious epiphany. Hess decides this is the way to go, and Ganja agrees. However, she may have some ulterior motives of her own.

I expected Ganja and Hess to be similar to Blacula. In truth, an edited version called Black Vampire was released on the blaxploitation market, re-editing the movie and making it into a choppy gorefest. I have not seen it, but I'm sure it is much worse than the full version, which until recently had not been seen since the film won an award at Cannes.

Personally, I did not care for the film even in its true form. Bill Gunn is a great director and much of the filming is beautiful, and it is great to see Duane Jones (who you will remember as the lead in Night of the Living Dead) in another role. Jones does a fine job, as does Marlene Clark. The problem is the glacial pacing of most of the film, and a tendency by Gunn to try to be too artsy, which instead reminds me of an amateur film school project.

There are a number of deeper issues running through the film, but as removed from the time period as I am, most of them do not connect beyond the obvious religious allegories. It does give a hint that many of the directors sending b-movie material to grindhouse cinemas did have some bigger ideas brewing, and African-American cinema may have evolved quite differently if the backlash against blaxploitation had not been so harsh.

Ganja and Hess (1973)
Duration: 110 minutes
Starring: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
Director: Bill Gunn

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