Also known as:
Vampires of Harlem
If any forgotten film is worth championing, it would have to be Ganja and Hess. I'm a bit loathe to call it a blaxploitation film. We're not talking Blackenstein here! No, Bill Gunn's classic could best be described as a black art-horror film. Even the term vampire doesn't quite do our protagonists justice. Immortal blood-addicts could be a more apt description. The central performance from Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame is also excellent, and adds to the status of this film as a must-watch. Let's take a look at our sad, blood-lusting Doctor Green and see what makes him tick.
As our opening credits tell us, "Doctor Hess Green ... Doctor of Anthropology, Doctor of Geology ... While studying the ancient Black civilization of Myrthia ... was stabbed by a stranger three times ... one for God the Father, one for the Son ... and one for the Holy Ghost ... stabbed with a dagger, diseased from that ancient culture whereupon he became addicted and could not die ... nor could he be killed." We appear to be launched straight into Professor Hess Green's (Jones) plight. Still, no matter his condition, he still attends church, with gospel-fuelled sermons run by his chauffeur, Reverend Williams (Sam Waymon), who helms his Rolls-Royce. The good Reverend's opening narration implies that he knows about Hess's condition but feels pity for him as a victim. Trying to keep his life normal, Hess is given a new research assistant in the form of George Meda. It doesn't take long for Hess and we viewers to realise that George is completely unstable. From getting blind drunk and sitting in a tree - refusing to come down - to pointing a gun at himself in a mirror, Hess soon has a crazy person on his hands. Letting George sleep it off, Hess is attacked in the middle of the night by his guest, who stabs him three times with the selfsame Myrthian dagger. Now, I'm not sure if this is the incident that changes Hess, or if it's already happened before the film starts. Either way, Hess's wounds heals instantly. In the meantime, the crazed, distraught George has taken a final bath, stands nude in the bathroom and shoots himself dead in the chest. Hess finds the dead man, and is compelled to lap up the blood on the floor.
We move along in Hess's addiction. He stages fires in waste-paper bins at the local blood-bank and steals some blood-bags. He goes to the seedy part of town and hires a prostitute. They try to murder and rob him, but he ends up killing them both, being immune to bullets. In a gruesome scene, he slits the throat of one of the corpses and we know what he's going to do with that gushing blood. Through all of this, Hess is visited by his conscience, as well as visions of a Myrthian Queen and her acolytes, beckoning him to join them. African chanting accompanies Hess every time he becomes tempted. Into this maelstrom of misery comes Ganja Meda (Marlene Clark), George's unwitting widow. Ganja calls Hess and demands to be allowed to stay with him while she looks for George. Hess reluctantly agrees and takes the pushy woman in. Sure enough, they hit it off and soon become lovers in a series of sensual scenes. Hess's long-suffering butler Archie (Leonard Jackson) has to put up with the new lady of the house's demands and constant jibes, but Hess sees something in her. While Hess is away, Ganja finds George's frozen body in a forbidden wine cellar. Initially distraught, she calms down and is comforted by Hess, who explains his situation. Ganja tells the story of her childhood, and we realise that she was totally neglected by her mother. Since then, she's looked out for number one and we can only sympathise after her story. Accepting Hess's explanations about George's fate, Ganja falls further in love with him and the two marry in a small, poolside ceremony. They drag George's corpse, wrapped in plastic, to a shallow grave.
After some time, in am embrace with Ganja, Hess comments that he wants to keep her forever. Later, after making love, Ganja lies on the bed in a mess of blood and we can see that he has killed her. In a sequence of hallucinatory scenes, Hess converts Ganja to the immortal blood-drinking fold. We see the good doctor in full Myrthian costume stabbing Ganja with the fateful dagger, out in a field. Ganja kissing a rose, only to drip blood from her mouth and scream. Still further in time, Ganja recovers from the 'conversion' and has her first glass of blood. Initially horrified at her new life, Ganja quickly adapts, although it bothers her that they are always cold. Ganja and Hess soon take another victim, a male dancer that she seduces in another sex scene, and whom both consume. However, though both are now immortal and could live their blood-drinking romance forever, all is not well. Hess is beginning to suffer the torments of his conscience. Reading through the writings of Myrthia, he finds a way to end their cursed existence.
The key lies with the Christian cross. As the writings tell, any object of belief that reflects a story of goodness sacrificed, when made to form a shadow over their heart, will kill them. Hess is a Christian, so the cross will be the object of his salvation through death. He wants Ganja to come with him, but she's hesitant, having found new pleasures and eternal life. Hess attends church, the same church his friend Reverend Williams presides over. Williams gives an inspirational sermon, exhorting his flock to give themselves over to God and find peace. Hess is finally convinced, being overcome with divine raptures. He runs through a field, seeing visions of both pain and salvation. A short while later we see that he has set up his own execution, sitting in front of a large, dangling cross with his chest exposed. Again, he pleads with Ganja to join him, and again she holds back. Hess feels the pain, the ecstacy and the relief of the cleansing death that's approaching. It's a slow demise, but Hess doesn't remove himself from the deadly shadow. Finally Hess Green falls dead, freed from the curse of the dagger. Ganja is left behind, to decide her own fate. Will she find another lover and continue her blood-drinking ways, or join her husband and be free of Myrthian immortality?
Director Gunn has fashioned a modern masterpiece with Ganja and Hess. To begin with, Duane Jones excels as the tragic doctor. Without resorting to histrionics, Jones conveys the silent misery the stoic semi-vampire is going through. You can palpably feel his relief, when the shadow of the cross falls on his heart. Marlene Clark as Ganja is a complex character. Sexy and likeable in one scene, domineering, manipulative and bullying in the next. Ganja still comes across as a victim once she enters Hess's world. It's up to us to decide whether her final decision is justified, and making the best of a bad situation. Technically the film itself is also filled with contradictions. Some shots are immaculate with their compositions, dissolves and overlays. Others are ragged, with actors not even properly aligned or composed in the shot. The soundtrack is a wonderful mix of gospel and soul. African chanting permeates the film when Hess is under siege from his addiction. If sex and blood is what you're after, well, it's there in Ganja and Hess, but not in an exploitative way. I gave a genuine flinch when we see the pimp's throat slit in extreme closeup, but it's obviously meant to convey what Hess is experiencing. The sex scenes are erotic in an artistic way, but Clark's undeniably pleasant form isn't dwelled on for great lengths of time - it's all in the context of the story!
The film is also hallucinatory at times. Along with the ever present Myrthian tribesfolk, there's a masked white man who haunts Hess's thoughts. I'm not sure what role he plays, other than 'impending doom', but his decadent presence adds to the general weirdness. Then there's Gunn's George Meda, who's a rambling, unpredictable neurotic who eventually caves in to an inner madness. Ganja and Hess hits new heights in artistic expression for black cinema - it's probably up there with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Superfly rather than the simple pleasures of Coffy and innumerable other Blaxploitation gems. It's a two-fold pity both Bill Gunn and Duane Jones made so few films, and nothing again like this one.
So to wrap up, if you're in the mood for a superlatively artistic achievement in black cinema and subtle horror, you may want to spend the night with Ganja and Hess. If you're looking for fun Blaxploitation with all the trimmings, I'd probably look elsewhere. This one is deadly serious, but succeeds completely within it's own fine parameters.
© Boris Lugosi, 2009.
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Review written: 05/20/2009 22:16:22