Monday, March 31, 2008

Ganja & Hess

This was the biggest head trip of a film I’ve seen since Altered States, and that’s a damn shame. There definitely needs to be more joyously strange films like this out there to blow the minds of unsuspecting cinema goers. I can’t even give you the general premise – a blaxploitation vampire movie – because that would just give you the impression that it was nonsense like Blacula or something, when it actually just exists on a strange cosmic plane all to itself.

The film opens with text explaining that, while living with a native tribe and exploring their culture, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, of Night of the Living Dead fame) was ritualistically stabbed in the heart three times, once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Ghost. After this, he could not die, nor could he be killed. That’s pretty heady stuff for a genre that’s normally little more than people with pointy teeth running around biting people and getting naked a lot. The film then follows him at home, now addicted to blood (tying it in with problems with 70s black culture, the film views it the same as any other drug addiction). The film rejects normal stereotypes, as he has no fangs, can travel around in the daylight, and normally gets his blood supply by stealing from hospitals rather than committing murders (though when a pimp and prostitute try to murder him, he is fine with utilizing them). Further, rather than the normal street level character one would find in a blaxploitation film, he’s an educated professor that lives in a mansion with his own servant. Bill Cosby may have made that seem acceptable for a black family in the 80s, but that was certainly a rarity for the times.

Eventually he meets, and falls in love with, Ganja, who comes to stay with him while looking for her husband. Her husband, she knows, was staying with Hess before he disappeared, but she doesn’t know is that her husband killed himself and Hess has been pragmatically keeping him on ice for a handy supply. Her reactions to Hess both before and after she discovers what has become of her husband, are very well done. I can’t reveal the ending or climax, but I will say that it ends in a unique manner perfectly befitting the rest of the movie.

And now that I’ve gone on about the plot for two paragraphs, let me explain that the film really isn’t about the plot. This is a movie that focuses heavily on religion, with him gaining his immortality through a dark religious ceremony, giving us a number of scenes at a black church, and featuring a soundtrack of spirituals and African tribal chanting. Even the unrevealed ending focuses deeply on this, and deals with a vampire’s relationship to God and Christianity in a much deeper and more intelligent way than the mere “touch of a cross burns them” scenario I’m used to dealing with. The film is also pretty slow paced, focusing more on the visuals and sound rather than a story, and is edited pretty loopily. Scenes jar against each other dischordantly, and the film’s sole real framing device, three title cues that tell us the various stages of his existence (“Addiction”, “Survival”, and “Letting Go”), doesn’t exactly go out of its way to explain things. It’s a surprisingly challenging film for a horror movie in general, but in particular for a vampire movie, and after one viewing it’s already earned a place as one of my favorites.

It’s disappointing, but unsurprising, that this isn’t a more well known film. It’s essentially an art house horror movie, and I can’t think of a one that’s all that popular, but it should be all the same. The 70s are renowned for being arguably the best decade for films in general, and that’s certainly just as true for horror movies as it was for dramas. Ganja & Hess may not quite be the Godfather of vampire movies, but at the very least it’s the Nashville of the genre.

Rating: *** ½

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