First things first, I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen a film like Bill Gunn’s 1973 effort Ganja & Hess. Perhaps incorrectly labeled as “blaxploitation” because of the time period in which it was released, this vampire movie is about as far from something like Blacula as you can possibly get. Kino Lorber, along with the Museum of Modern Art, has restored the film from its abbreviated 78 minutes to the director’s 110-minute vision, and in doing so, has presented us with a soulful, difficult film that’s more of a loose collection of atmospheric sequences than a 1970’s shocker. The movie it reminded me of the most was Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, but even then, that film is more concerned with its narrative than Gunn’s avant garde take on horror.
Duane Jones, recognizable to horror fans everywhere as Ben from Night of the Living Dead, plays Hess Green, who we’re told is cursed with vampirism by being stabbed with a cursed dagger before the film begins. Hess treats his curse a little bit like one might treat a compulsive secret – with personal fulfillment and privacy. He meets Ganja (Marlene Clark), the widow of one of his victims, and she’s unusually tolerant of his vampirism (such is love). Soon, his private activity becomes a shared one.
There’s a new buzzword amongst film critics, and it’s “tone poem,” a descriptor that fits Ganja & Hess like a glove. Gunn’s film is a challenge to watch, but fascinating throughout. The story seems to be told out of sequence, the dialogue is semi-improvisational, and it’s a film more concerned with capturing interesting images than giving you a straight vampire tale. Historically, Ganja & Hess is the first film to treat vampirism as a direct drug addiction allegory, so it has that going for it, but it’s very much an art house movie with only slight horror overtones. Ganja & Hess is definitely a tone poem – introspective and experimental – and it captures and maintains its atmosphere through artful direction and interesting use of sound (a church choir refrain is repeated at key moments in the film).
Kino Lorber has done the film, shot on Super 16 and blown up to 35mm, quite a service with this Blu-ray release, as they continue to build an impressive resume of horror curios. The picture is grainy and rough in spots, but it adds to the overall oddness of the movie-watching experience. I would imagine this is almost exactly how it looked when first projected and I can’t fault Kino for that at all. Extras include an audio commentary track (unfortunately both Gunn and his star Jones passed away before the the track was recorded) and a short documentary on the film and its release.