Ganja and Hess

Year: 1973
Production Co: Kelly/Jordan Enterprises
Director: Bill Gunn
Writer: Bill Gunn
Cast: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark

I saw Spike Lee's remake of this film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, before this version, and I can see not only what he liked about it for his filmmaking sensibility but the fact that he liked it so much his 2014 redux was almost a scene for scene remake.

The original by Bill Gunn wasn't really any more interesting as a story, but it's fascinating as a piece of craft, and where the pacing and style of Lee's version seemed out of place, here in the early 70s the psychedelic, trippy aesthetic is right at home.

Dr Hess Greene (Duane Jones, just a few years out from his seminal role as the hero Ben from Night of the Living Dead) is a wealthy and cultured anthropologist who lives and works in an opulent country estate. His new assistant who arrives, Meda (writer/director Gunn) seems overeager but competent enough, but when Hess finds him later that night up a tree and ranting about killing himself, obviously things are awry.

Later still, Meda attacks Hess in his bed, stabbing him with an ancient African ceremonial dagger Hess has been working with before shooting himself. When Hess comes to and sees Meda's body he feels the compulsive urge to drink the blood seeping out of the dead assistant – now turned into a vampire by the cursed artefact.

He embarks on a new life on immortality and thirst, having to steal bags of blood from a hospital but doing his best to retain his cover with the help of his loyal manservant.

But just when Hess finds a new groove his life is thrown into disarray when Ganja (Marlene Clark), Meda's beautiful and boisterous estranged wife, shows up looking for her husband.

Hess quickly falls for her and asks her to move in, and despite her initial horror at finding out what's really going on (especially after discovering her husband's body stuffed in a freezer), she agrees to let him turn her too, intending to be young lovers forever.

Instead, Hess starts to feel the emptiness of a life of killing that will never end, and he finds redemption in the African American Holy roller religious movement, a repeated motif throughout the film.

It's a mind bending rumination on the religious overtones of the vampire myth, shot through sharply with the styles and textures of the blaxploitation film movement (including the liberal doses of nudity and sex), and even though it can be a bit of a slog from a narrative standpoint it's certainly something you've never seen before and – without Lee continually championing the art created by his race – never would have again.

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