Although it's a landmark film and considered by many a hidden gem, Ganja & Hess (1973) is a vampiric fable I'd never heard of before viewing this newly-restored Classics Remastered Edition Blu-ray DVD.
Thanks to the capable crew at Kino Lorber, the late writer, director and actor Bill Gunn can finally, nearly 40 years after its limited theatrical release, present his creation as it was meant to be seen. (By all accounts, only heavily edited and even downright butchered versions — under titles such as Double Possession, Blood Couple, Black Vampire, and Black Out: The Moment of Terror — have existed.)
Using the supernatural as a racial an social parable, the story follows anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead) who becomes one of the undead after being stabbed with an ancient African dagger that's imbued with evil. The culprit is his insane assistant George (Gunn), who's swiftly killed by the newly-made vampire. George's freewheeling widow Ganja (Marlene Clark) soon becomes Hess's mistress and, inevitably, a fellow bloodsucker.
However, Ganja & Hess is not a vampire thriller. And it's not a horror movie, either. More like a strange experimental anti-blaxploitation art film, this is a flick that's more likely to be admired than actually liked.
Personally I found it clunky (wants to send a message, but it's not using Western Union), tedious (nothing, and I do mean nothing, happens over long stretches), and aurally annoying (lots of flashbacks to the bad old days of slavery, complete with relentless drumming and chanting). Riddled with non sequiturs, laden with pretentious symbolism, and burdened by full-on, run-on soliloquies, Ganja & Hess is probably best-viewed after smoking actual ganja.
Having said all that as a brand new viewer, I hasten to add that if you are already a fan of this film, you will appreciate the Kino touches. It looks great — it was originally shot on Super 16, but the picture has been mastered from a restored 35 millimeter negative and this 'downgrade' actually lends itself to the naturalistic, gritty feel of the tale. The bonus material dates back to the initial DVD release five years ago, most notable being the half-hour featurette "The Blood of the Thing" (interviews with actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton, and composer/actor Sam Waymon, among others), but the fact its now on Blu-ray, and the original screenplay is also part of the package, makes Ganja & Hess a keeper for completists.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson