Thursday, January 4, 2007

Ganja and Hess

Ganja and Hess
dir. Bill Gunn

Ganja and Hess brain-master, Bill Gunn, as the suicidal George Meda

January 1, 2007 - DVD

Riveting, challenging and never boring, calling Ganja and Hess a vampire movie, is like calling George Romero’s Martin a vampire movie. Ganja and Hess is a vampire movie, and like Romero’s vampire movie, it does what genre pictures are so simply equipped to do, to be turned on their head. Whilst Romero takes the vampire picture by way of The 400 Blows or If…, Ganja and Hess brain-master Bill Gunn takes the vampire picture by the way of Meshes of the Afternoon stirred with a twist of Blaxploitation.

The oversimplified plot goes something like this: Dr. Hess is attacked by the suicidal George Meda (Bill Gunn himelf! See above!). Mr. Meda had been staying with Dr. Hess at his large estate, and much to the Doctor’s chagrin, could be found late at night up in a tree, like a bat. He is concerned that Mr. Meda’s death, suicide or not, would arouse suspicion in his direction, as he is the only black person on the block. Anywho, Dr. Hess becomes undead and Mr. Meda becomes dead. Dr. Hess, while retaining his oh so civilized demeanor, shamefully hoards and hunts blood for survival. Blood becomes his drug of choice. Ganja, Mr. Meda’s wife, arrives looking for her husband, and Ganja and Hess have torrid bloody sex, sinking them both into their tripped-out vampire haze (the “Ganja” pun is not lost on this viewer, no, no).

As of late it has become courtesy to yield narrative power or voice over to the blood-drinking dead, though it has never been executed with such horrifying tunnel vision. Bill Gunn took Romero’s Night of the Living Dead star Duane Jones and cast him as the titular Dr. Hess. Mr. Jones marks his performance with sadness tempered with a quiet anger, and when the blood takes hold, his physicality turns him into something more akin to a werewolf than his usually stoic vampyrish self. The Doctor’s fits are marked effectively by the simplest of aural cues, a buzzing that sounds very much like an electric razor. Every instance of this buzz leads to somewhat non-narrative dreamscapes, populated by both beautiful and bloody images, often sun-drenched fields and flora meshed with bloody bodies and revilvalist preaching, all set to a exhilarating score from Sam “Magic Man” Waymon (Nina Simone’s collaborator and brother).

Ganja and Hess is an art picture, a race picture, a horror picture and a tragic love story. The romance is the real surprise, a treat even; the chemistry between Jones and co-star Marlene Clark is as infectious as the hunger. This is a wonderful movie for horror fans and drug-movie fans, like Martin, but most importantly, a movie for people who like good art.

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