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From the Vault: Ganja & Hess #MovieReview

After being stabbed with an ancient, germ-infested knife, a doctor’s assistant finds himself with an insatiable desire for blood.

Movie poster for Ganja & Hess

Tagline: The Devil wanted their souls…she wanted their bodies and more!
Starring: Duane JonesMarlene ClarkBill Gunn 
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror | Language: English | Runtime: 1 hr 50 min |
Release Year: 1974

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Ganja & Hess Review

“I had a strange dream last night. I dreamed you murdered me.”

The 1973 blaxploitation film made waves with its symbolism and experimentation. It was intended to be an erotic vampire film to follow up Blacula, however, director Bill Gunn had other plans. What follows is a beautiful philosophical interrogation of addiction, hallucination, and religion. It is psychedelic and an ambitious in a time when black film was intended to profit from black audiences but not to enrich them, too much. The final cut of Ganja and Hess was so opposed to what the production company (Kino International) chopped the film down to 78 minutes. It was released as this, but without Gunn’s name on it. He removed it because the film that was released was so different from his artistic intention. It was eventually restored by MOMA to its original beauty and complexity.

As much as the blaxploitation film movement of the time had its hand in perpetuating stereotypes, it also created opportunities for creators to show the African American experience in a completely different light. Ganja and Hess falls into this. It tells the story of an anthropologist, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead). The film gives us a different perspective of black professional ability. Having the lead as a scientist was revolutionary at the time. He is studying an ancient African tribe that was destroyed by an Ancient Egyptian blood disease thousands of years ago. He is stabbed three times with an ancient dagger (symbolism starts early in this one, One for the father, for the son and for the holy ghost.) but instead of dying becomes immortal. There’s only one catch – he has an addiction to blood.

“The only perversions that can be comfortable condemned are the perversions of others.”

The film was a 100-minute trip that frames ancient religions and tribalism as dream-like, making African mythology and religious culture enticing and inviting. The film puts the troupe of the black villain on its head, allowing us to see black people in a thoughtful and meticulous way. I think of it as a montage swimming around a narrative that interrogates desire, addiction and grief. It uses poetic language and juxtaposes it against honest dialogue and stylistic imagery. With its one-sided framing of dialogue, it puts the characters dead centre, and allows them to put their human conditions out for us to absorb. Its clever rhythmic use of religious scripture juxtaposed against a truthful portrayal of the human condition makes it a cult classic. It’s no wonder it was called the best film of the decade at Cannes 1973.

“I will persist and survive without God or Society’s sanction.”

Ganja and Hess is available on Dailymotion, Amazon Prime and Blu Ray.

Published inMovie Reviews
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