Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn
By Roderick Heath
In the early 1970s, films about black protagonists erupted in popularity, in mostly urban tales laced with gritty realism and high-powered action, bracketed ever since under the memorably pithy name of blaxploitation. Some enterprising producers went a step further and set out to blend one popular, cheap cinematic brand with another—horror movies. Strange generic crossbreeds, some with infamous titles that evoke cinematic trash-fetish at its purist, like Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), traipsed onto drive-in and grindhouse theatre screens. These films triangulated commercial impulse, cheerful camp appeal, and, sometimes, clever and socially mindful attempts to upend familiar tropes and remix the symbolic values of horror tales.
When he was approached to make cash in on Blacula’s success, Bill Gunn cringed at the proposition. Gunn was gaining repute at the time as an artist, writer, and stage director: his play Johnnas, first performed in 1968, had just been adapted into an Emmy-winning TV film in 1972, and he had worked on the screenplays of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and Jan Kadar’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Angel Levine (both 1970). Gunn’s entry into horror cinema annals echoed Val Lewton’s 30 years earlier, as he set out to make a mercenary assignment in a disreputable genre serve his personal vision. Gunn realised he could use the motif of vampirism to create a metaphor for drug addiction, and then, in the act of creating it, found dimensions far broader and more original. The result, even amidst the proliferation of strange and original low-budget works both in genre cinema and arthouse fare in the early ’70s, was hailed as one of the most exciting, and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. But Gunn’s work proved far too uncommercial, even in a truncated version released under the title Blood Couple, to satisfy its producers and the audience they were targeting. For a long time Ganja & Hess remained a legendary obscurity.
Ganja & Hess’s revival owes much to Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), an act that can easily be likened to Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) as a labour of cultural tribute and postmodern ventriloquism. Gunn’s work crucially anticipates much of Lee’s aesthetic, as Lee has often tried to accomplish what Gunn does in pushing beyond the dictates of familiar Hollywood forms to create something like a cultural artefact: this movie works on the level of essayistic enquiry and museum curation as well as narrative. The great ferment of the black American cultural scene at the time too rarely found expression on cinema screens at the time. The unalloyed statement of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) helped create the blaxploitation gerne, but Gunn’s work creates a bridging point between the genre and the arrival of more determinedly artistic filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Lee. Ganja & Hess has a Godardian streak, as it privileges musical, painterly, and literary embellishments within its form whilst remaining, above all, powerfully filmic, pausing to listen to characters reading or giving account, offering frames replete with compositions inspired by the static methods of visual art, and crowding the soundtrack with spirituals, blues songs, and tribal chants overlapping and soaking into the psychic patina the film leaves in the mind. Many films from that time played about with cinematic structure and flow to create weird and artistically yearning effects, and Gunn’s work, though sometimes weakly paced and uncertainly assembled (exacerbated by the partially restored, but still choppy state of the remnant film), creates a cumulatively disorientating effect as he begins with a reasonably straightforward story that steadily spirals into an increasingly dreamlike, near-symbolic state of representation and happening.
Ganja & Hess is narrated at the outset by Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a church preacher who moonlights as a chauffeur for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). Hess is an anthropologist and college professor, and Williams describes him in retrospect as “an addict…he’s not a criminal—he’s a victim.” Hess is at the height of worldly success, a wealthy, respected intellectual with a ready command of a panoply of cultural references and ensconced in a balloon of privilege. Gunn announces his intention to play about with the clichés of both horror cinema and black identity in this way, depicting Hess’s devolution into carnal bloodsucker as an investigation into that identity. Most ambitious vampire sagas look for primal urges underlying civilised mores, a pattern Gunn follows whilst taking it a logical step further in terms of his theme.
Hess is researching a long-vanished African nation called Myrthia, and his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), has recently returned from Africa with relics of the Myrthians, including a ceremonial dagger. The decline of Myrthia, according to mythology, was thanks to the spread of a mysterious blood disease that turned its citizens into parasitic wraiths, and the dagger plays a part in that transformation, as a victim must be stabbed three times with it, invoking the Holy Trinity despite the ritual’s pagan roots, before being reborn. Meda, like Hess, is an erudite scholar, but uneasy and disturbed by recent experiences to the point where after a night of boozy conversation, Hess finds him sitting in a tree with a noose tied and dangling, ready for suicide. Hess talks him down. The following day, Meda writes a poetic missive and reads it outloud to himself, and then attacks Hess, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger. Meda then bathes and shoots himself through the chest. Hess arises from the dead and desperately guzzles up the blood leaking from Meda’s corpse: he has been resurrected as a Myrthian vampire.
At first, Hess maintains his upright academic veneer, attending fancy garden parties and conversing easily in French with his son Enrico (Enrico Fales) who’s off at boarding school. He subsists on supplies of blood he steals from the hospital, downing glasses of it in his house, whilst Meda’s body turns stiff and grey in the wine cellar. Hess soon starts cruising for sex and blood on the town, driven by an intensifying hunger that Gunn inscribes on the soundtrack through weird, maddening sound effects and the lapping refrains of a tribal chant, the call of ancient blood tormenting Hess during the day. Hess begins preying on prostitutes and other women he picks up. On one occasion, he picks up a hooker in a bar (Candece Tarpley), and her pimp (Tommy Lane) tries to ambush and knife him in an attempted robbery. Hess, not hurt, battles the man. The prostitute hysterically fires off a gun, accidentally killing the pimp, and Hess drags her into the bathroom and kills her to drink her blood.
Hess’s new life pattern is shaken up when he gets a phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja (Marilyn Clark), who’s been searching fruitlessly for her husband around the world and has now returned to the States broke. When Hess responds to her aggressive queries with “I have had a very difficult morning,” she retorts, “I have had a very difficult fucking six months!” Ganja breezes into Hess’s life, a volcanic personality with an honest, me-first attitude, and she shares an instant arc of attraction with him that threatens to combust sexually and emotionally in spite of what is, to Ganja, Meda’s ambiguous fate. Ganja sets up in Hess’s house and happily bosses around his manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja’s happy patronisation of Archie has a satirical note, in observing the readiness of some black folk to readily adopt the hierarchism of white society imposed on them. But the inevitable moment when Ganja heads down into the wine cellar draws nearer.
The almost negligible surface narrative isn’t what makes Gunn’s achievement fascinating. The bluntest interpretation of Ganja & Hess is that it’s a parable about rediscovering the fecundity of African cultural roots and black male virility, with Hess as a denatured and assimilated being flung back into raw and primal realities. This is undoubtedly accurate, though Gunn’s themes and his way of communicating them are more complex and ambiguous than this may sound; Ganja & Hess works most profoundly on the level of meditation, iridescent with the shifting tides of its ideas and aesthetics. Gunn created distinctive characters in the eponymous couple, giving Jones and Clark, two excellent, but underutilised actors, clear space to construct vivid individuals even as Gunn’s covert narrative suggests anti-individualism, a sense of communal identity, as the only recourse for their quandaries.
Jones, who, like Gunn had roots in the burgeoning black theatre scene of the 1960s, had crucially found his place in film history playing the lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and returned here in an equally radical and ambitious low-budget horror film, anchoring the film with a performance that captures a difficult person: Hess is by turns brilliant, righteous, cool, imperious, pathetic, anguished, childlike, and quite often detached in the face of his problems. One of the film’s strongest vignettes focuses on Clark’s Ganja as she narrates a tale from her childhood, a moment of pungent disillusionment by her mother over an imagined sexual transgression that set her on the path of self-liberation and self-protection. She retains an aspirational fire that eludes Hess, who seems at first like the ideal modern man, but is revealed as tortured and limited by that very sophistication.
As in many vampirism tales, transformation proves double-edged: like the habit of drug use as a means of fleeing reality or society, the effect is isolating and cumulatively deadening. Hess is ultimately as castrated by his addiction as he is liberated, at least until he strikes upon the idea of making Ganja like himself. When Hess forces himself to retreat from sex with Ganja as the blood lust comes upon him and hides in the attic to down a glass of blood, Gunn shoots it like an act of guilty masturbation, until Ganja tracks him down, drawn to his body like planetary gravity, and makes love to him.
Gunn signals the schismatic and apprehensive nature of Hess’s interior world early in the film when he sleeps, clutching the Myrthian dagger in his hand, and dreams of divergent experiences of being inducted: in one, he and Meda are greeted by a masked white man in evening dress and led through a cavernous mansion, with an interesting note of anticipation of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and in the other, he glimpses the ancient queen of Myrthia (played by Mabel King, whose singing is heard throughout the film) leading tribal initiates through long grass somewhere in the veldt. An essay Meda writes and reads is a manifesto, poetry, and epitaph all at once, a stab at expressing the fraught mindset of a conscientious black man at the fringe of a new age at once hopeful and hazardous. Gunn uses the metaphorical power of the underlying unease created in Meda by his unholy contraction in his exchanges with Hess to underline a less metaphorical sense of their unease as avatars of multiple identities often caricatured as antipathetic— African-American men, artists, thinkers, potential political leaders—and as renegades within those identities, a psychic map of a shared mindset. Meda’s suicidal fixation seems like some lost, romantic revolutionary from a classic Russian novel, whilst his writing recalls James Baldwin. The scene where Hess tries to talk him down is played as dark comedy: Gunn shoots the whole sequence in one shot framed so it sarcastically cuts off Meda’s head, and when Meda contemplates drowning himself instead, Hess notes with pungent cynicism that if a dead body is found anywhere in his neighbourhood, the cops will come straight to his house.
With surprising richness and originality for a first-time filmmaker with a literary and theatrical background, Gunn evokes different cultural dimensions through his film’s form. Luther’s early voiceover suggests a cinema verite account of an addict’s life, with documentary-style footage of Luther leading his flock in prayer, and spacy, washed-out footage of Luther in his chauffeuring guise driving Hess about while he is in the throes of his private suffering, before the timeframe shifts and we see Hess as he was before his addiction. Gunn here grazes the edges of the later craze for “found footage” horror with its glaze of false authenticity as a swift means of both baiting the audience into accepting events it might not otherwise and suggesting dimensions of understanding created by the foregrounding of technique. But Gunn soon moves through cinematic modes, from deadpan realism to outright surrealism. Hess’s adventures on the town as he hunts for blood suggest an ironic assault on the precepts of blaxploitation, as Hess bestrides nightlife looking quite the cool mofo, but preying on, rather than helping out, the black demimonde: Shaft has become Jaws.
Meanwhile, Gunn litters his film with baroque compositions until it feels like the limits of his frames might bust open, often crowding those frames with signifiers and nature and fecund beauty whilst evoking different art styles, from still lifes to the tangled geometrics of art nouveau. He zeroes in on decaying statues and works of art, a panoply of cultural inheritance, mostly Old World European, including icons by Andrei Rublev, intimating Hess’s obsession with mortality and the sustenance of the spirit, even as Gunn scrutinises the thorny relationship between traditional black identity and the Christian church, whose power Hess eventually turns to. Hess’s home is a zone of cultural inheritance, both European and African-American, replete with photos of Sonny Rollins, African statuary, and jazz singers constantly snaking out of his sound system, as well as Victoriana bric-a-brac and neoclassical art. Gunn may well have been playing a joke on the concept of the vampire’s haunted castle, usually tied to the monster’s immortality in signifying the pernicious power of ancient creeds in the modern world, but here suggesting a different brand of troubled, persisting inheritance. Gunn also emphasises the decay of all these artefacts, whilst contemplating the raw and cyclical potency of the living form during sex and acts of violence, death, and resurrection. One of Gunn’s recurring motifs is acts of immersion and bathing, starting with Meda almost ritualistically washing before fatally shooting himself, and circling back to this in the finale when a dead man leaps out of Hess’s swimming pool and runs towards the camera, stark naked, manhood flying like a battle flag.
As the film travels more deeply into the sense of folie-a-deux between the titular lovers, the narrative increasingly breaks down, entering a welter of randomly strange, but vividly illustrative vignettes, like Ganja biting into a rose and finding it floods her mouth with blood and a stone face weeping tears of blood. Ganja’s response to finding her husband’s frigid corpse in the wine cellar leads to a fraught confrontation, but also a peculiar confession from her that amounts to an admission she’s done concerning herself with any problem that doesn’t affect her own fate, and obeying that logic Ganja quietly forgets the all-but-literal skeleton in the closet to get on with life with Hess. The couple marries in front of their polyglot group of friends before Hess initiates the half-willing, ultimately terrified Ganja into sharing his condition, stabbing her and resurrecting her.
It’s a plunge into an ugly state of being at first, and Ganja writhes in bed during her transformation and finds herself feeling cold constantly. When she asks Hess if he feels the same way, he answers that he does, but he’s gotten used to it. Uniting in undead passion, however, fails to cure the anguish that possesses Hess, particularly as it reduces him after a fashion to a cuckold. The couple invites a young man (Richard Harrow) over for dinner, and then Ganja seduces him with the intent of making him her first living victim. Gunn shoots their sexual encounter as a mad flux of images in an erotic-sanguinary frenzy, leaving the young man’s body caked in gleaming blood and Ganja, who had been greedily lapping blood from his dripping wounds moments before, aghast at her own behaviour. Hess helps her wrap the body in plastic and dump it in a field, where Ganja hysterically cries that he’s still alive as Hess drags her away.
It’s tempting to detach Ganja & Hess, with its arty filmmaking, lack of suspense, and overtly symbolic approach to loaded subjects, from horror cinema altogether and regard it as closer in nature to the spacy, interiorised state of mind communicated in many “art” movie works of the period like Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Last Movie (1971). But it fits in with some other horror works of its time with surprising alacrity. As well as tweaking the basic themes of the well-established vampire film for its own purposes, the visual texture is as dense and tangled, if less well-organised, as the same year’s more celebrated Don’t Look Now. Jones’ connection with Romero strengthens the similarity with Romero’s own early work, like Season of the Witch (1971), with its similar focus on shifting sociological mores visualised as a mix of bland modernity and underlying estrangement. Gunn shares a mesmeric fascination with blurred time and psychic dislocation, a tactile sense of nostalgia and association in objects, and a vision of a physical world through which humans move lost and ephemeral, with John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1972). But it’s Gunn’s fixation with the body itself as a vessel of fascination, discontent, and political meaning that feels most vital and prognosticative. Gunn most immediately anticipated David Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975), which, like Ganja & Hess, interrogates the basic metaphor and travels through zones of weird revulsion before arriving at a perverse heroism in the prospect of emancipation from the sickness of civilisation brought about via biological reassignment. Claire Denis, whose debts to Cronenberg are readily apparent, may also have been remembering Gunn’s film with Trouble Every Day (2001), which posits itself essentially as the tale of Ganja and Meda if they hadn’t been separated.
The last act of Ganja & Hess depicts Hess’s attempt to release himself by turning to religion after reading a passage in a book that explains Myrthian sufferers found release in the shadow of the cross. He attends a sermon given by Luther and then builds a shrine in his house where he sits gazing at a crucifix, beset by visions of running through open fields as if liberated, before he finally dies. Gunn portrays this fate ambiguously, as if pondering whether Hess has found release in sanctification or has annihilated himself trying to cling to a creed that brings only self-destructive. Throughout Ganja & Hess, Gunn suggests a version of the Christ tale absorbed and retranslated, invoking Catholic rituals and the African-American Christian tradition but searching for the primal mythic force and meaning behind it all, a tale of blood, suffering, and rebirth. Either way, Hess finds escape but abandons Ganja, beset with his condition and left alone and bereft—except that Gunn leaves off with the image of the young man Ganja killed earlier springing out of Hess’s pool and running toward the house, caught in a freeze-frame leaping over Archie’s corpse. Ganja smiles enigmatically at the camera. She has her new partner, one perhaps better fitted for her anyway, and the overwhelming impression of this astonishing final flourish is one of survival—black survival, perhaps, but certainly the power as well as fragility of the life spirit.
Ganja & Hess has longeurs, and Gunn’s effects are often uneven, perhaps an inevitability when he’s experimenting as extensively as he was here, but the ultimate effect of Ganja & Hess is rare and powerful. Sadly, the film’s lack of commercial impact meant Gunn never got to develop his talent in film, and both he and Jones would die tragically young within a year of each other in the late 1980s. At least they left behind a worthy totem for their talents.