In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the folks who financed writer-director Bill Gunn’s unclassifiable 1973 cult movie Ganja & Hess slashed its running time from 113 to 78 minutes. The film’s backers gave Gunn a modest budget of $350,000, hoping he’d crank out another enormously lucrative Blacula-style vampire shocker for the horror and blaxploitation market. Gunn delivered a movie with more than its share of blood and nudity—of both the male and female variety—but the result defiantly refused to play by the rules of the horror genre. Gunn was hired to make a blood-saturated exploitation movie; instead he offered up a slow, meditative, and dreamlike exploration of addiction and identity. The money people wanted violent schlock, not a film that aspired to the brainy surrealism of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and suffered tremendously for its ambition. Time has been kind to Ganja & Hess, however: It’s picked up a cult following through the years, and after being mangled by its distributor, it’s been restored to its original length by the Museum Of Modern Art and released on DVD by the eminently respectable likes of Kino Classics.
In his only leading role other than Night Of The Living Dead, the charismatic and brooding Duane Jones stars as a wealthy, cultured, and tormented anthropologist who develops an insatiable lust for blood after his assistant (Gunn) stabs him with a cursed dagger. When Gunn goes missing, his hot-blooded and sexually voracious wife (Marlene Clark) comes to Jones’ estate looking for him, and it isn’t long until Jones and Clark are locked in a steamy carnal fling.
Ganja & Hess alternates jarring, shocking moments of visceral bloodshed and terror with long, lyrical passages where nothing much happens. When the schlock merchants who commissioned the film cut it by 35 minutes, they undoubtedly lost some of its self-indulgence, but they also destroyed much of its poetry and soul. Ganja & Hess works best as a gothic mood piece, a slow-burning, evocative, and cerebral allegory of addiction thinly passing as a horror movie. Pretension is often the price artists pay for ambition, and if Ganja & Hess is unmistakably pretentious throughout, it’s also an utterly unique, if only intermittently successful attempt to create highbrow bohemian art from the building blocks of cynical, sordid exploitation. At its best, Ganja & Hess possesses the haunted quality of a waking nightmare, albeit one that audiences without the patience to follow Gunn’s wandering muse wherever it leads might desperately want to wake from.
Key Features: An audio commentary from producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton, and composer Sam Waymon, and an engaging, bare-bones making-of feature called “The Blood Of The Thing.”