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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Ganja & Hess, or: Don’t Cross Me

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?

The Film:

Ganja & Hess

The Premise:

After he is stabbed 3 times with a dagger, anthropologist Dr. Hess Green gets a second chance to live…as a vampire.

The Ramble:

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.

A Black man walks down the aisle between crowded church pews, eyes closed.

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.

A man pours himself a glass of water while seated in front of a fireplace. Across from him, another man speaks with intensity.

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.

A Black man and woman sit at a small table outside. The man speaks with a servant standing in uniform, whose face cannot be seen.

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?

The Rating:

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.

Would my blog wife share a glass of warm blood with this one or stab it with a dagger too many times for it to resurrect? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Tales from the Hood 2, or: They Call Me Mr. Simms

Sometimes we dive right into the middle of a horror franchise with ease; we’ve reviewed a later installment of the Child’s Play franchise without religiously watching all prior volumes in order, and a number of Hellraiser sequels. A few have made us eager to watch more; several have made us consider how much more of our lives we’d like to lose to not-even-B-horror (though only briefly).

I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine which of these types of horror sequels our latest pick falls in; however, I will remind you that there’s perhaps a reason the franchise is currently only on film two of two. EDIT: as of October 2020, there are THREE films in the Tales from the Hood series.

The Film:

Tales from the Hood 2

The Premise:

A storyteller recounts four tales of terror for a police robot learning to identify criminal behavior.

The Ramble:

At Dumass Beach Securities, the CEO is the exact kind of sleaze you would imagine with a predictive policing robot prototype designed to arrest criminals before they can act. (Coincidentally, your level of amusement related to the name Dumass Beach sounding much like “dumbass bitch” can determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy to what extent you will enjoy this feature. In my case, this was not a whole lot.)

Little does Dumass Beach know that his visitor, one Mr. Simms, is a storyteller with an agenda. Hired to tell stories that will help the Robo Patriot learn to identify who may one day commit a crime, Mr. Simms clearly spots the ultimate goal is to racially profile people.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Simms uses this as an opportunity to tell stories that are more subversive than Dumass Beach realizes. Which, to be honest, isn’t particularly difficult as the thinly veiled stand-in for Trump is about as likely to pick up on subtext as…well, the real thing. Thus, four stories follow with extremely self-evident messages about race and racism.

In a hallway, a blonde white woman smiles ahead, while a Black woman next to her looks on with discomfort.

In “Good Golly” (whose reasonably clever title I will acknowledge), a group of college friends check out the eerie Museum of Negrosity, a collection of antiquated–and extremely racist–memorabilia. Besties Audrey and Zoe insist that the stereotypes on display here are a thing of the past, and their friendship (between a Black and white girl) is proof that racism is dead and gone. Despite some very college lecture-y explanations of why this is untrue from the museum curator, the girls learn absolutely nothing. Audrey holds fast to her conviction that the golliwog doll is a comforting symbol from her childhood and decides she absolutely must have it…even if it means stealing this racist figure.

Since this is a horror/comedy, be confident that this plan goes horribly awry in a way that manages to be simultaneously creative and boring.

Two Black men stare each other down while a third figure looms in the background, fists together.

“The Medium” is the requisite gangster story, featuring 3 gang members trying to track down $5 million from ex-pimp Cliff. Now a successful businessman, Cliff refuses to reveal the location of the money, which is intended for a foundation. This revelation earns such cartoonish dialogue as “Fuck the United Negro College Fund, and fuck the kids.” Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the gang loses patience, and Cliff ends up dead.

Since Cliff was the only person who knew the location of the money, the gang members are SOL…until one of them has the brilliant idea of using a psychic to connect with Cliff. What could possibly go wrong there?

Two women in lingerie hiss, exposing vampiric fangs.

Our next story, “Date Night,” purports to underscore the importance of bros before hos. Two friends, Ty and Kahad, look forward to meeting two women from Tinder, ostensibly for a date. The two men are actually predators, claiming to be an agent and casting director in a disgusting bro-y way. In fact, the two do have plans to see their dates on film…by drugging them and recording their rape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two women are not entirely who they appear to be, and the evening may take a nasty turn for Ty and Kahad.

A Black man and his mother look skeptically in the same direction that a white woman is staring.

Finally, “The Sacrifice” is…A LOT. The story alternates between the night of Emmett Till’s murder and the present day. In our contemporary story, pregnant Emily experiences nightmares about Till’s murder, becoming increasingly convinced that he has decided to live…and her baby must die. The baby’s father, Henry is a Black man and local politician who is a lifelong Republican. Ignoring his mother and wife alike, Henry disbelieves the signs that Emmett has a message for him from beyond. However, when it becomes clear that the life of Henry’s child is at stake, he has no choice but to listen to the spirit.

All of these stories are tied together by the Robo Patriot story, “Robo Hell.” What not-so-secret message might Mr. Simms reveal at last to Mr. Dumass Beach?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

I don’t know where to begin. First, let’s be clear that those 2 PPHs earned are purely for Keith David’s commitment to increasingly menacing grins and willingness to pull out all of the stops in his last few scenes.

However, the rest of the film is an absolute mess. Pulling off neither horror nor comedy particularly well, the stories mostly just make me cringe. Women are incredibly flat characters here, including the ONE Latina character, who is also depicted very stereotypically. The themes are about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and the dialogue is truly terrible. Even the Emmett Till story, which is the most genuine of the bunch, comes across as a clumsy after-school special.

If the Tales from the Hood franchise fails to fully launch, this film is the reason.

Would my blog wife channel this one’s spirit or condemn it to Robo Hell for eternity? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Tales from the Crypt presents: Demon Knight, or: Un-Brayk My Heart

It’s the best month on the blog, even if Horror Month is somewhat less of an escape while we’re in the midst of a global pandemic (being especially mishandled by the leadership in my country, the good ol’ “freedom isn’t free” USA). As this week’s film shows, things could always be worse…though I’ve seen demons with more compassion than some of our current world leaders.

The Film:

Tales from the Crypt presents:  Demon Knight

The Premise:

The fight for the key that holds humanity’s only hope for survival comes to smalltown New Mexico when a loner arrives, pursued by demon.

The Ramble:

Rather unnecessarily, the Crypt Keeper is a Hollywood director, which isn’t so much commentary as an opportunity for horrendously cringey puns on actors’ names. I suppose the Crypt Keeper is a necessary part of the film since this is a tale from the crypt…but I could have happily skipped these scenes without missing any of the film’s essence.

A skeleton wearing a director's costume faces the camera from a film set.

Once we dive into the main story line, we’re dropped into the middle of a dramatic high-speed chase. Protagonist Brayker is SOL when he runs out of fuel completely and cowboy-hatted Billy Zane still has his foot firmly on the gas pedal. As an audience with zero context for what’s happening, we’re initially supposed to be conflicted about who the good guy really is here…but we’ve all seen Titanic, right? Billy Zane’s character is known later only as the Collector–ooooh, ominous!

A man in a cowboy hat raises his hands as if in surrender, the police officer behind him looking skeptical.

After the two cars collide in a fiery explosion, there can be no survivors. Thus conclude the local police officers investigating the accident. However, to dramatically prove them wrong (and to keep the film going for another 80 minutes), an unscathed Collector emerges from the wreckage, demanding to know where the man he was following has gone.

As it turns out, Brayker has left a fairly easy trail to follow after attempting to steal a car parked outside of a café. At the suggestion of a man everyone in town calls Uncle Willy, Brayker winds up staying the night at a motel called the Mission, formerly a church.

A man wearing a leather jacket sits at a dingy table, an empty bowl in front of him.

Especially for a horror film, there are a LOT of characters whose names we’re supposed to remember from here on out (in addition to Uncle Willy). First is Irene, the owner of the motel, and formerly incarcerated employee Jeryline who is decidedly not here for your nonsense. Then we’ve got Cordelia, a sex worker who operates out of the motel, and Wally, a postal worker who is in love with her. Unfortunately, Cordelia has terrible taste in men, opting for the appropriately named Roach.

Before the cops and the Collector have to do too much sleuthing, a suspicious Irene tips them off on Brayker’s location. When they apprehend Brayker, the Collector reveals his interest in finding the man: he’s searching for an ancient key that seems to contain a precious liquid (spoiler alert: it’s the literal blood of Jesus).

However, unlike most horror movie cops, these two are at least somewhat suspicious of an actual demon, demanding that the Collector accompany them to the station rather than handing over the key. This is really not part of the plan, and one of the cops soon meets a grisly end as the Collector escapes. Condemning the property, the Collector brings forth demons to destroy those remaining in the motel.

After some setbacks, Brayker manages to keep demons out of the motel using the blood of Christ at all entrances to the building. However, this strategy will only work if no one enters or leaves the motel for the rest of the night. Complicating things is the demons’ ability to possess any of the humans with no one the wiser…until it’s too late.

A woman looks in horror at something offscreen as a man stands behind her, smiling.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Collector spends most of the film sending demons after the crew in the motel and trying to convince the humans to make a deal with him. He really wants that key as it is the last of 7–the other 6 of which are already in the demons’ possession. Of course, the key/Jesus blood is the only way for humanity to hold off the forces of darkness.

As the night goes on, both the human and demonic body count rises, with Jeryline emerging as an unlikely heroine. But does she have what it takes to preserve the key, save humanity, and keep the demonic forces at bay?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

You know, I didn’t hate this. The humor doesn’t always land well, and the explanation for the importance of the relic feels extremely underdeveloped. But overall, I stayed reasonably entertained through most of the film.

Demons pursuing an ancient object in a creepy old house gave me quite a Hellraiser vibe, and I’m not mad about that. However, this film doesn’t particularly pull off the menacing elements that Pinhead and the Cenobites bring to Hellraiser, opting instead for comedy. There were some times when I did find Billy Zane’s flippant approach to demonhood entertaining; it does seem on brand that a demon would have a good time watching humans inevitably fail. With the shaved head and dark eyes, Billy Zane gives off High Priest Imhotep vibes and seems to have made the entire film an audition tape for his role in Titanic.

Actually, the casting is well done in a way that doesn’t always happen with horror. William Sadler comes across like a budget Patrick Swayze, and it works for me. Perhaps the biggest badasses of the film are CCH Pounder as Irene and Jade Pinkett as Jeryline. My complaint here is that Jada in particular isn’t given much to do until the end, reflecting some of the film’s issues with major reveals. There are quite a few plot elements that are thrown in as dramatic twists, Jeryline’s role as the heir to Brayker’s work included (does that count as a spoiler?). This doesn’t always work particularly well; with Jeryline, it undercuts her importance by giving her less screen time. It’s a damn shame, especially because the scenes towards the end of the film are some of the most suspenseful (and badass).

New horror classic? Maybe not. But it’s just enough fun (and gore) that I have no regrets that we’ve included it on this year’s Horror Month watchlist.

Would my blog wife join this one in hell or banish it with a barrier of Jesus’s blood? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Blacula, or: There He Is Again

Even if many typical Halloween activities have been cancelled or deemed too risky for me personally, it’s October, damnit! The spirit of Halloween lives in our hearts, and that’s at least reflected on the Blog Collab if not in many other parts of my life right now. Since we’ve already crossed off the Snoop Dogg/Pam Grier vehicle Bones, what better way to kick off Horror Month than with another pioneer in Black cinema…Blacula?

The Film:

Blacula

The Premise:

After becoming a vampire nearly 200 years earlier, Prince Mamuwalde awakens in 1970s Los Angeles as Blacula.

The Ramble:

The year is 1780 in Transylvania, and Dracula is meeting with two representatives of the fictional Abani nation: Prince Mamuwalde and his wife, Luva. The two seek Dracula’s support in ending the slave trade, a cause so unsympathetic to the vampire of legend that he laughs off the idea. In fact, Dracula decides that having two visitors to his estate presents an opportunity to feed. Transforming Mamuwalde into a vampire, Dracula seals him in a coffin to thirst for blood for eternity as…Blacula.

A grey-haired white man in period costume looks smug as a Black man and woman stand next to him, looking indignant.

Nearly two centuries later, cringey gay stereotypes Bobby and Billy are interior decorators hoping to cash in on the campiness of antiques from Dracula’s estate. Shrugging off the warnings of the agent, the two men purchase items including a coffin, which happens to contain Mamuwalde’s undead corpse. After the coffin is sent to Los Angeles, Bobby and Billy unknowingly unleash the vampire on the city, becoming his first victims.

A man with an afro smiles, looking at a table of antiques. Two other men stand next to him.

At Bobby’s funeral, Mamuwalde spots a mourner who looks just like his wife, Luva. Impossible, as Luva was locked in the creepy cellar in Dracula’s castle to die…or is it? The modern-day Luva is named Tina, a woman whose sister is dating an LAPD pathologist. Mamuwalde makes a bad first impression when he materializes in a dark alley, sending Tina running for her life. Conveniently, Mamuwalde is able to reconnect by returning Tina’s purse to her and explaining the misunderstanding. Though she is unnerved by Mamuwalde, Tina also feels drawn to him.

In a dark room, a man in a cape smiles at a woman with a short afro.

Meanwhile, the bodies pile up as Mamuwalde simultaneously feeds and covers his tracks. Dr. Thomas, the boyfriend of Tina’s sister Michelle, begins to suspect the mysterious deaths may share something similar. Researching all manner of ghoulish subjects, Thomas and Michelle investigate one of the victim’s graves after the LAPD refuses to exhume the body. There, they discover Billy’s undead corpse, which springs awake to attack them.

After an incredibly unsubtle line of questioning (“Are you into the occult?”), Mamuwalde realizes that Thomas is onto him. Just as it seems Mamuwalde has convinced Tina to join him for eternity, the LAPD interrupt, and the vampire is forced to flee. Upon following one of the vampires, Thomas and others find a den of the creatures, narrowly escaping.

With Mamuwalde on the loose, Thomas and Michelle pressure Tina to help them find and destroy him. Will Tina keep her promise or give in to the allure of Mamuwalde and the vampire lifestyle?

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

For such an iconic film, I frequently found myself struggling to stay awake…and not because of any vampiric hypnosis. This is basically a straightforward adaptation of Dracula set in the ’70s with a mostly Black cast. I was hoping for a stronger social commentary, but Mamuwalde doesn’t seem to have any secret social justice agenda, nor do any of the other characters. Even the name Blacula becomes problematic as it’s Dracula’s name for Mamuwalde rather than his own. Is it strange that I wanted a period piece set in the 19th century where Mamuwalde seeks vengeance against Dracula???

The character of Mamuwalde himself is pretty boring, though I suppose at the time it may have been refreshing to see a Black character who wasn’t a complete stereotype. He does, after all, walk around LA proudly wearing a cape. However, Dr. Thomas really takes over as a protagonist, and he’s not particularly interesting either. There’s a reason so many films about vampires focus on Dracula rather than Van Helsing–it’s so much more fun to be the creature than the force attempting to stop it.

Let’s not even get started with the characters of Tina and Michelle, who are glamorous but given virtually nothing to do. Neither has much agency, as Tina is mystically drawn to Mamuwalde, while Michelle revolves around Thomas. There isn’t really a compelling reason for Tina to feel a connection to Mamuwalde except because, you know, vampires. Either way, she doesn’t really get to make her own choices in the story and deserves better than the fate she meets.

And it’s impossible for me not to address the representation of gay characters Bobby and Billy in this film, which ages very poorly. I know most sitcoms today don’t do much better, but it’s still jarring to see these characters played purely for laughs.

Overall, the highlight is the unnecessary number of funk music interludes, which makes me suspect this would have been better as a musical.

Would my blog wife fly into the night with this one or deliver it a stake to the heart? Find out in her review!