In terms of tone, this week’s film is about as far from last week’s Tales from the Hood 2 as possible while staying (more or less) in the horror genre. An independent art house film from the 1970s, there was never any chance Ganja & Hess would be franchised (though Spike Lee did remake it in 2014). Let’s at least try to follow along, shall we?
Ganja & Hess
After he is stabbed 3 times with a dagger, anthropologist Dr. Hess Green gets a second chance to live…as a vampire.
Don’t expect our film’s theme song to give you any spoiler warnings: it tells us right off the bat that there have always been creatures addicted to blood who roam the Earth. Many enslaved people were victims of this addiction, condemned to experience the life of a vampire (though this word is never used) until Christianity–specifically the shadow of the Cross–drives them away.
One such modern vampire is Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist whose addiction to blood seems to be the only force that drives him. According to his driver, Reverend Luther Williams, Dr. Green is a victim. It was after Green’s former assistant Meda stabbed him three times with a ceremonial dagger that he became a vampire. Once Green rose from the dead, he craved Meda’s blood, spilled all over the bathroom floor after he killed himself.
Green’s new craving quickly escalates from hunger to need. Virtually everything Green does is to find and consume blood, whether that means absconding with bags of donated blood or bringing home strangers from bars.
That is, until Meda’s wife Ganja arrives with many questions about her husband’s whereabouts. It’s not long before she forgets all about her husband as she becomes Hess’s lover. Confusingly, it seems to be a minor setback when Ganja discovers her husband’s decomposing body. Concluding that Hess is psychotic, Ganja makes the obvious next move of…marrying him?
Hess decides quickly that he doesn’t want to live without Ganja, turning her into a vampire on their wedding night. Soon after, they “have a guest for dinner,” which involves both sex and murder.
Just as Ganja begins to embrace the vampire lifestyle, Hess starts to turn from it in favor of the church. Hmmmm…vampires and crucifixes. That can’t end well, right?
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
I must admit that overall…I don’t get it. The aesthetic is stunning, but the loose narrative structure makes for a confusing couple of hours. Apparently director Bill Gunn denounced the film as it was released because a new director was brought in to make major changes, including cutting it down to less than 80 minutes. And it’s difficult to blame the studio entirely; this is a challenging film to sell to an audience.
What is fascinating about the film is its commitment to its message. Gunn intentionally connects vampirism with slavery right from the start of the film so the themes of race and social justice frame everything that we experience as an audience. The film is in some ways a plea for unity within the Black community, as it’s one Black man’s attack on another that transforms Hess into a vampire. As Rev. Williams reminds us, Hess is a victim. Gunn doesn’t forget that problems related to drug abuse relate to larger social structures and racial inequity.
The importance of faith and community in healing is central to the plot as well. Thinking of the gaps in government agencies and social services, it’s no wonder the church has become such a vital institution in many Black communities. However, it’s unclear if Hess ultimately gains salvation through the church or merely an end to his life.
It’s similarly unclear if we’re rooting for any of our characters here. Ganja and Hess do obtain a sort of power through their vampirism, but this in itself isn’t necessarily empowering. There are a lot of scenes involving a servant bringing food to the couple and generally being a nameless, faceless employee. He does nothing onscreen but work, while Ganja and Hess do almost anything but work. These scenes are uncomfortable, but Gunn leaves things ambiguous in terms of what we as an audience are meant to think.
I’m glad we watched this film as it’s considered a classic of Black filmmaking. I can’t say I would have followed through with the entire run time if it hadn’t been “homework,” though.