As of this moment, I’ve seen Ganja & Hess—or some facsimile of Ganja & Hess —at least six times. To be honest, it’s difficult to place an exact number on how many times I’ve seen the movie, because there are several different versions, released under as many as four other titles. There is, however, only one version that represents the vision of writer-director Bill Gunn. That version was lovingly restored and released on DVD back in 1998, and has recently been reissued DVD and released for the first time on blu-ray. This disc represents the film Gunn made, and not the heavily butchered versions released by the distributor that bore little resemblance to what Gunn had in mind. Gunn’s Ganja & Hess has been revered by critics and has garnered a cult following, while altered versions like Black Vampire and Blood Couple have lapsed into relative obscurity. This is a singularly unique film that is cryptically compelling and perplexing, and in being so represents the uncompromising cinematic talents of an artist who has never gotten his proper recognition.
Now, I need to be honest, for all the times I’ve seen Ganja & Hess—and I’ve seen this uncut version three other times—I still don’t completely understand what’s going on. Duane Jones, who is best remembered for his role in the original Night of the Living Dead, stars as archeologist Dr. Hess Green, who is transformed into a vampire when he is stabbed with an ancient African dagger by his demented assistant, George (Gunn). Hess kills George, stores his body in the freezer, and goes about his life dealing with his new-found addiction. And then along comes Ganja (Marlene Clark), George’s free-spirited wife, who is less concerned with the whereabouts of her husband as she is with Hess. The two quickly become lovers, and it isn’t long before Ganja is also a vampires, who deals with her addiction in her own way.
That is the basic plot of Ganja & Hess, but even knowing that much doesn’t help in comprehending this somewhat disjointed foray into metaphor and cinematic symbolism. As a film, Ganja & Hess is a visual rumination on addiction that isn’t concerned with the audience’s ability to understand everything that is going on. In many ways it is like watching someone’s attempt at translating on to film a nightmare they had experienced. And while this may not sound like the most entertaining of films, it is compelling nonetheless, due in no small part to the fact that Ganja & Hess is unlike pretty much any movie you’ve ever seen before. It is one of those rare works of cinema that reflects the unique artist vision of the primary creator, which in this case is Bill Gunn.
Gunn was an actor with a handful of television credits to his name, and an incredibly gifted writer whose credits include the films The Angel Levine and director Hal Ashby’s brilliant movie The Landlord. Ganja & Hess was Gunn’s first opportunity to write and direct his own feature. He was contracted to do a blaxploitation vampire movie in the vein of Blacula, which had been a huge hit in 1972, and on paper he crafted a script that promised just such a film. But Gunn had no intention of making a typical blaxploitation, and so he went on to make the movie he wanted to make, much to the frustration of the film’s financiers. After the initial release of Ganja & Hess, which was well-received by critics, but lost to audiences that thought they were getting a vampire sexploitation flick, the distributors recut the film and released it under various different titles. Where Gunn’s version ran 110 minutes, Double Possession, Blood Couple, Black Vampire, and Black Out: The Moment of Terror all ran a scant 78 minutes—and none featured Gunn’s name as writer and director.
Ganja & Hess is an interesting film, though it is not for everyone. It is devoid of nearly all the conventions of trappings of most horror films as well as blaxploitation movies, making something very different from entries in either of those genres. It is as more of an artistic achievement than it is a work of baseline entertainment, and as long as it is viewed and considered from that standpoint, it should always be engaging.