Ganja & Hess

USA 1973, 113 mins
Director: Bill Gunn

Marlene Clark and Duane Jones star as the eponymous lovers of Bill Gunn’s iconic vampire romance, one of the defining classics of the genre. After his erratic assistant stabs him with an ancient dagger, anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Jones) is afflicted with a ravenous craving for blood. When his assistant’s wife Ganja Meda (Clark) comes looking for her now dead husband, she and Hess fall passionately in love.
Kelli Weston,

Philadelphia-born actor/playwright/novelist/ director Bill Gunn, who died from encephalitis in 1989 aged 54, remains one of America’s most underrated creative forces. He was a fiercely individualistic talent whose work tackled issues germane to the African-American experience with an ingenuity and complexity that few could match. His acerbic screenplay for Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), for example, gets to the heart of white middle-class gentrification of economically deprived black areas in a manner that resounds today. Even in the more permissive climate of late-60s/early-70s American cinema, Gunn’s work was seen by the establishment as overly controversial: his feature debut Stop (1970) – a tortuous love-quadrangle – was slapped with an X certificate, before Warner Bros recut and finally shelved it. It remains unseen today, though there is hope that it will be unearthed.

The issue of frustrated expectations is relevant to Gunn’s best-known work, Ganja & Hess, which boasts its own dismaying history of troubled distribution. Its studio, Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, was expecting a straightforward blaxploitation cash-in after the success of William Crain’s lurid Blacula (1972), and was horrified when Gunn delivered nothing of the sort. Despite its rapturous reception at Cannes in 1973, the film was swiftly recut into a travesty of skinflick salaciousness, and boxed up under no fewer than six different titles including Blackout: The Moment of Terror and, even more terribly, Black Evil.

So what offended the studio so much? Well, even by elliptical arthouse standards, Ganja & Hess is a challenging work. It’s a bleak, kaleidoscopic vampire film in which the V-word is never once mentioned, and it substitutes bloody thrills for an oblique mélange of contemporary class, racial and religious commentary, Afro-European symbolism and sexual deviance. Its fragmentary structure and explicit (but never titillating) fusion of sex and death recalls the psychologically troubling work of Nicolas Roeg (in particular 1980’s Bad Timing) more than the Manichean social dynamics of standard blaxploitation fare.

The hazy plot follows the exploits of wealthy anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones), who becomes a vampire after his crazed assistant George Meda (a terrifyingly intense Gunn) stabs him with a dagger that carries an ancient African curse. Meda commits suicide, and Green falls in love with his haughty widow Ganja (the statuesque Marlene Clark), who soon becomes his vampiric partner in crime.

This troubling film is so visually rich and thematically complex that it’s not hard to see why Spike Lee co-opted it for his forthcoming Kickstarter-funded remake Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. If Lee attains half the disquieting power of Gunn’s film, he’ll do well.
Ashley Clark, Sight and Sound, March 2015

Directed by: Bill Gunn
A Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, Inc. production
Released by: Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, Inc.
Associate Producer: Joan Shigekawa
Production Manager: Lou Pastore
Production Supervisor: Ed Dessisso
Assistant to the Producer: Janus Adams
Production Secretary: Janis Klein
Production Assistants: Scotti Lyew, Alan Skog, Lincoln Pasteur
Assistant Director: Anthony Major
Assistant to the Director: Roger Wall
Script Supervisor: Renoir Darrett
Written by: Bill Gunn
Lighting Director: Bill Lister
2nd Cameraman: Charles Blackwell
Assistant Cameraman: Thurman Faulk
Camera Assistant: James Walker
Best Boy: Dennis Murphy
Key Grip: Rex North
Still Photographer: Charles Stewart
Editor: Victor Kanefsky
Assistant Editors: Cynthia Castleman, Samuel Pollard
Properties Master: James Walker
Costumes Designed by: Scott Barrie
Wardrobe: Ceil Bryant
Make-up: Scott Cunningham
Hair Stylist: Annie De Mille
Titles Designed by: J. Sands
Music: Sam Waymon
African Instruments Played by: Nadi Qamar
March Blues Sung by: Mabel King
Musical Director: Ed Bland
Assistant Sound: Bill Meredith
Re-recording: Emil Neroda, The Sound Shop, Inc.
Sound Editors: Al Nahmias, Vincent Stenerson
Special Audio Effects by: Mike Lobel
Stuntmen: Tony King, Tommy Lane, Malcolm Drummond

Duane Jones (Dr Hess Green)
Marlene Clark (Ganja Meda)
Bill Gunn (George Meda)
Sam Waymon (Reverend Luther Williams)
Leonard Jackson (Archie)
Candece Tarpley (girl in bar)
Richard Harrow (dinner guest)
John Hoffmeister (Jack Sargent)
Betty Barney (singer in church)
Mabel King (Queen of Mythria)
Betsy Thurman (poetess)
Enrico Fales (Dr Green’s son)
Tommy Lane (pimp)
Tara Fields (woman with baby)
the congregation of Evangel Revivaltime Church

USA 1973
113 mins

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