GANJA & HESS, which dates from 1973, is one of those films that can be labeled a forgotten classic. The reason why it is forgotten is that too few moviegoers saw it during its all-too-brief original theatrical run. But now, decades later, the uncut version of the film, which was written and directed by Bill Gunn, is available on DVD.
Superficially, GANJA & HESS is nothing more than a vampire film. Its central character is played by Duane Jones, whose best-known screen role is the lead in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, George Romero’s legendary ultra-low-budget late-1960s horror movie. Interestingly, Jones was an English professor who also was head of the theater department at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Sadly, he died of heart failure in 1988, at the all-too-young age of 52.
In GANJA & HESS, Jones’ character is Hess Green, an erudite African-American doctor of geology and anthropology. Early on, he is stabbed with an ancient dagger, which transforms him into a vampire. Like other vampiric creatures, Dr. Green develops an insatiable need to drink the blood of the newly deceased.
On closer inspection, however, it is clear that GANJA & HESS is no mere horror movie. It does not feature a simple good-versus-evil storyline whose sole purpose is to offer chills and scares to moviegoers. Instead, it consists of a series of what may be best-described as impressions, which are symbolic in nature.
What can be said about GANJA & HESS is that it captures a feeling that is reflective of its era in that it explores the history and status of blacks in the U.S., and is a synthesis of black spirituality, oppression, and anger. Yet unlike so many blaxploitation films of its era, the villain is not white society and the white oppressor. Rather, it is a black man who has risen up in class but has forsaken his culture, and is condescending toward those of his race who have been left behind. He acts out his superiority by killing his fellow blacks, and drinking their blood.
When he was hired to make GANJA & HESS, Bill Gunn-- an actor, playwright, and director of note who passed away over two decades ago-- was supposed to concoct a quickie horror film that would make a fast profit during its screenings in drive-in movie theaters or their equivalent. Instead, Gunn had the audacity to create a very non-mainstream art film, with a sensibility that is closer to Ingmar Bergman than Bela Lugosi.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s backers were not at all pleased. After a brief theatrical run and screening at the Cannes Film Festival, GANJA & HESS went on to have a rather checkered history. This is explained at the start of the DVD, where it is noted that, after Gunn completed GANJA & HESS, “the film was reedited without his involvement and shortened from 113 to 78 minutes. Because the original negative had been altered, the only surviving copies of the complete version were used 35mm prints. The best of these elements were combined to create a 35mm negative from which this edition was restored.”
It was the 78-minute version of GANJA & HESS that played in drive-ins and eventually was released to VHS under a range of alternate titles. Among them are BLACK EVIL, BLACK VAMPIRE, BLACKOUT: A MOMENT OF TERROR, BLOOD COUPLE, DOUBLE POSSESSION, and my favorite: VAMPIRES OF HARLEM.
Not surprisingly, Gunn and the others on his production team completely disassociated themselves from these truncated versions. But happily, the original GANJA & HESS now is available on DVD, for one and all to see.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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