Ganja & Hess: The Complete Edition
R1 - America - All Day Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Jeremiah Chin (17th February 2009).
The Film

Though blaxploitation cinema featured black actors as protagonists in major roles in greater numbers than even Hollywood today, behind the camera the directors were predominantly white. This sort of power relationship between white production and black actors only helped to heighten the controversy of the genre, while at the same time makes those few black directors stand out even more within 1970’s cinema. Films like “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song” (1971), “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970) or even “Blacula” (1972) displayed the talents of black directors like Melvin Van Peebles and Ossie Davis who would gain fame through their acting and directing. Others however never really got off the ground for their directing though made some iconic genre pieces like William Crain and “Blacula.” Others still found neither the fame or popularity, with relatively unknown films like Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess” (1973), which carves out it’s own mark as more of an art film than pure blaxploitation, brings in a good cast to a seemingly genre film about a black vampire (of sorts).

Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is an archeologist studying ancient African cultures who is one day stabbed with an old ritual knife by his psychotic assistant. Dr. Green soon discovers that the knife was cursed in the ancient tradition, transforming whomever it stabs into a vampire (though not of the typical sort, he craves blood and is immortal, but otherwise normal). For a while he keeps his lifestyle a secret, living in a wealthy and secluded area of New York, until Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes to investigate the disappearance of her husband. Soon Ganja and Hess have fallen in love and his bizarre vampire-esque ways start to get more and more apparent.

It’s nice to see Duane Jones in another film (better known as the hero of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)), let alone another leading role in a horror (ish) film considering his fairly limited film career. He gives a good performance, especially considering the more art focus of the film that concentrates more on the bizzareness of the situation than a horror aspect of the entire film. While this art focus brings a lot of the interesting variety to the film and keeps it interesting on one level, it also causes me to disengage a little bit since it almost seems to loose it’s focus on the notion of the blood sucker by trying to focus on creating some artistic shots or writing in the midst of it all. Some ideas never really get explained or are just sort of dropped from the film and fall away to the side, which isn’t always bad, but it makes the film a bit harder to follow as a continuous narrative. While this can work in some instances where you’re going for a dream-like mood or another sort of weird experience, the film doesn’t fully match up to the standard for dreamy or bizarre.

At the same time the film goes for pursuing some fairly complicated ideas and presenting some points that just weren’t apparent in film at the time. The way the film focuses more on an affluent, educated black protagonist for a horror slant in the midst of the blaxploitation era, and actually takes this point seriously, is hard to find for it’s time. The way the film plays with vampirism about addiction moreso than the more stereotypical vampire traits is also fairly complex, but doesn’t truly execute in exploring the depths of Jones addiction. It’s interesting for a time, but I felt like there was more to the addiction theme that just never got taken care of in the film.

Overall “Ganja and Hess” is a standout of early black filmmaking in the midst of the blaxploitation era, not really pursing the more commercial realm that everyone seemed to be capitalizing on. Yet the film is almost so artsy that it disconnects for me at points and I become a little less interested in the overall film, even though there’ some good acting, interesting directing and cinematography, combined with an interesting script. Regardless of the actual films quality though, I appreciate the film actually getting a DVD release for the sake of preserving 70’s films that have been overlooked or fallen away.

Video

Presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer, the film is surprisingly well preserved for being such an unknown 70’s film, but at the same time I have an easier time accepting all of the problems like grain, spots, or cigarette burns because of the time and place it comes from. The restored scenes in the film though honestly aren’t that well restored as they are very distinct, but the fact that the film comes with a warning about their quality before the feature plays makes me appreciate more the effort of the DVD to preserve the director’s visual and story intent rather than just pump something out.

Audio

Similar to the video, the audio is presented in the original English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which transfers well and again helps to preserve the feel of the film. The soundtrack by Sam Waymon does a good job of putting out a 70’s horror vibe with some distinct tones of its own and hearing it in the original mono does the film justice rather than trying to mutate it into a 5.1 audio track.
There are no optional subtitles available.

Extras

The single disc comes equipped with a fair share of extras including an audio commentary track, two featurettes, an animated photo gallery and some DVD-ROM supplements.

First up is the audio commentary with producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, director of photography Jim Hinton and composer Sam Waymon, with additional comments by editor Victor Kanesfky playing during the restored footage. Though writer/director Bill Gunn and lead actor Duane Jones are unfortunately absent for the commentary recording (since it was put together a few years after their deaths), the rest of the crew presents a great look at the production, filming and overall creation of the film. The stories they share are both funny and engaging, and there are very few pauses in the commentary while they cover some really interesting points of the film, especially the cinematographer Hinton who talks about the lighting for black actors at the time and how he had to instruct his assistants not light the film in a way that would make Jones’ skin tone lighter according to the convention of the time.

“The Blood of the Thing” runs for 29 minutes and 37 seconds. This featurette does a general history of the film, mostly talking with producer Chiz Schultz, both in single interviews and at a screening of the restored version of the film. He does a great job covering the development history of the film along with it’s post release history including the re-cutting of the film into “Blood Couple” which almost everyone involved with “Ganja & Hess” took their names off of. It’s a good retrospective that goes fairly in-depth about a film I had never really heard of before, bringing in stories that he knew about Duane Jones, Bill Gunn and the rest of the film.

“Ganja & Hess Reduced” runs for 17 minutes and 44 seconds. This final featurette speaks with David Kalat, the DVD producer for All Day Entertainment, talking more about his experiences with the DVD and personal impressions on the film. At the beginning he just begins talking about the film itself as a commentary track but only wanted to comment about some select scenes, giving some interesting information about the plot of the film and the way it wound up being cut together. Overall it’s a really interesting featurette that helps to clarify the film a bit and gives another interesting perspective.

Next is the photo gallery which runs for 2 minutes and 59 seconds, running with music from the film, but also giving some great behind the scenes still shots that give a good look at the film’s production and some of the scenes that wound up never in either version of the film, along with some stills from what I’m guessing was a promotional photo shoot, finishing with a photo of the crew involved in the commentary (I’m guessing again) today.

Finally are the DVD-ROM features which includes:

- 29 photos from the animated photo gallery.
- The original screenplay by Bill Gunn.
- “The Savaging and Salvaging of an American Classic”article by Tim Lucas and David Walker.
- Interview with Fima Noveck, the editor who reduced “Ganja & Hess” to “Blood Couple.”

Overall

The Film: C+ Video: B- Audio: B- Extras: A Overall: B-

 


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