Originally intended to ride the coattails of William Crane’s delightful Blacula (1972), Bill Gunn’s 1973 film Ganja & Hess is a far more complicated and experimental creation. While Blacula is arguably a reinterpretation of Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) — itself intended by AIP to breathe some new life into a dusty subgenre — Ganja & Hess is its own animal and, like George Romero’s somewhat later Martin (1978), is one that refuses to play by any conventional rules of cinematic vampirism. Part dreamy Gothic romance, part vampire film, and part commentary on African-American life, there is really nothing else like it. Director Gunn worked as a playwright and stage director — though he also made other films, including the controversial, X-rated Stop (1970), which focused on gay relationships — but Ganja & Hess is his masterpiece and remains one of the finest American genre films of the ‘70s (or any other decade).
The wealthy Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones Night of the Living Dead), an expert in African art and anthropology, hires an assistant (Bill Gunn); unfortunately the man turns out to be disturbed and stabs Hess with an antique ritual dagger before shooting himself in the heart. Hess wakes up, surprised to find his wounds healed, but suffers from an inexplicable, irrepressible thirst for blood. He begins stealing from it banks to slake his thirst, though he soon progresses to murder. His assistant’s wife, the beautiful Ganja (Marlene Clark of Switchblade Sisters, The Beast Must Die, Enter the Dragon), eventually comes to find her husband, but she and Hess begin an intense relationship. Though she discovers her husband’s dead body in Hess’s freezer, she marries Hess and he introduces her to an eternal life of pleasure… and thirst.
Though Ganja & Hess is loosely described as a horror film — it is about vampires, after all — it does not use any conventional horror tropes. The word “vampire” is never explicitly used and Hess’s affliction is represented as more like an addiction or a disease. In a sense, it’s at least a decade ahead of its time, coming before the ‘80s and ‘90s vampire films that used addiction and HIV as a subtext: The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark (1987), and Abel Ferrara’s lamentable The Addiction (1995). But Ganja & Hess is hardly limited to one theme: it explores identity, culture, gender, race, and religion all in one hazy, dreamlike narrative. As Brad Stevens wrote for the BFI, it “incorporates philosophy, music, painting, politics, religion, poetry, geology and anthropology.”
It would certainly be obvious to include religion as a main theme — as it is in William Girdler’s blaxploitation horror film Abby (1974), which pits Christianity against Santeria — but the church doesn’t play as obvious a role in the central plot as might be expected. The film is introduced by Hess’s chauffeur, who is also a preacher, and Hess self-inflicted downfall happens in the shadow of a cross, resulting in a nuanced exploration of guilt and religion, two themes that frequently factor into vampire films (though often in trite, predictable ways). In Ganja & Hess, the church functions as a foundational, grounded source for black culture and society, one which Gunn uses as a jumping off point to explore various themes. Transformation — from human to vampire — is ultimately depicted as an act of sacrifice, even martyrdom and the film is marked by a number of suicides or attempted suicides. These transcendent, blood-gorged bodies seem to only undergo a spiritual transformation by leaving earth behind — with the exception of Ganja.
Even more so than themes of religion and spiritual experience, the film examines tensions within black life and identity, including the divide between African-American versus Anglo-American culture, Christian present versus pagan past, male versus female, and wealth versus poverty. Much of this division is represented through Hess himself, who is a fascinating character within the larger context of blaxploitation films (a tradition which Ganja & Hess is not necessarily part of, but perhaps more a response to), because he is not a cop or criminal; he is a wealthy, educated, cultured doctor of anthropology. He lives in a large home with servants — perhaps a nod to the literary stereotype of vampires as aristocrats — and seems to be an intentional contrast to both the inhuman, supernatural vampiric figure (like Blacula’s Mamuwalde), as well as the stereotypical blaxploitation protagonists. He can be seen as both exploiter and exploited. For Jump Cut, Manthia Diawars and Phyllis Klotman wrote,
The producers wanted a film that would exploit black audiences — a black version of white vampire films. Ganja & Hess violates conventional narrative devices such as beginning, middle, and end, a clearly defined hero and heroine, and cause and effect. The film indicts Hess Green’s very wealth and class position as vampirism. […] Any black action always inevitably involves other blacks. The film emphasizes this when we see Green feed off the blood of black victims. Then the images are almost always close ups. Not so with the white victims — they’re distanced from us by the camera and shown in long shot.”
Black identity was rarely explored by genre directors and the few exceptions were generally shaped by exotic stereotypes: Jean Rollin’s Le viol du vampire (The Rape of the Vampire, 1968), which features a powerful, but sadistic vampire queen; Francesco Barilli’s Il profumo della signora in nero (The Perfume of the Lady in Black, 1974), where a man who studies voodoo and African culture inspires the protagonist’s descent into madness; and The Beast Must Die (1974), where a millionaire and his wife (Clark) invite a number of strangers to their isolated mansion for a lycanthropic interpretation of The Most Dangerous Game. Of course George Romero’s black characters (in his zombie trilogy, for example) were more nuanced, but it should come as no surprise that it took a black director to explore the theme most fully.
Much of Ganja & Hess’s power is in the fact that it ignores or subverts stereotypes; it is pensive and even meditative rather than reactive. In addition to the theme of tragic romance and confrontational use of sexuality, Gunn presents a divided, even schizophrenic sense of self so crucial to many classic thrillers by directors like Hitchcock, Polanski, and De Palma. Curiously, it is Ganja who goes through the most dramatic transformation and who winds up with the most strongly defined sense of self. At first, she is disturbed by the changing of her flesh as represented by a sudden, pronounced coldness; she asks Hess about it, who remarks that he’s “grown used to it.” But as his guilt consumes him, she finds vampirism freeing, a gateway to a sort of a hedonistic paradise after a lifetime of abuse and subjugation. Ganja’s transformation here is absolute and, in a sense, serves as the crux of the film. It is Ganja who has the final say — just as her name is listed first in the film’s title — and she is unrepentantly liberated. The concluding scene not only allows her an implied happy ending, but mirrors a sort of reverse baptism as her new lover rises up out of a pool of water, newly immortal.
The film received a standing ovations at Cannes, though it was hated or ignored by critics and quickly pulled from theaters. The film was also drastically recut, stripping it of its magic and lyricism; it also suffered the indignity of being slapped with new titles like Blood Couple or Black Evil. After the film was essentially lost, a surviving copy remained at the Museum of Modern Art, but it has fortunately been restored and released on Blu-ray. On one hand, I find it incredibly frustrating that Ganja & Hess is one of the titles trotted out by cult film critics every February for Black History Month; on the other hand, I think we should parade it around every month until it’s a household name (though it will admittedly not be for everyone). Gunn deserves to be remembered as a brave and bold auteur charging forward at a time when minorities were not encouraged to sit in the director’s chair — not that things have changed all that much in Hollywood. For his part, Gunn seemed uninterested in exploring one particular political ideology and manipulates any number of genres, avoiding one overarching filmic theme. Ganja & Hess presents the defiant notion that identity cannot be boiled down a specific ethos, culture, or tradition (a parallel can be found in something like this personal discussion about the difference between African American and black American) and is inherently fractured, specifically for black Americans because of the external (and internal) limitations — and societal demands to conform to toxic stereotypes.