'Ganja & Hess' is one of the most ambitious and inspiring films to come out of the era of Exploitation Cinema. Considering the enormous number of movies made during those years of rogue, low-budget filmmaking, many of which admittedly became little more than guilty pleasures, it's quite the feat to stand out amongst the heap and viewed as more than the period which defines it. It's enough to warrant at least one watch from film lovers, especially those with an interest in passionately inventive and wildly experimental movies much too often lost to obscurity. Only, be warned, it does come with one minor caveat, something to bear in mind when coming into this divisive motion picture.
Its praise has little to do with the production design and the few gory effects often expected of better known grindhouse schlock. That's not to imply they're not worthy of appreciation, which I'll get to in a bit, but my admiration for 'Ganja & Hess' comes from the subject matter and the way in which writer/director Bill Gunn approaches it. For his directorial debut, novelist and respected playwright Gunn strived for something more grandiose and monumental with his opportunity to make his first motion picture. Originally hired to capitalize on the success of 'Blacula' and the demand for more urban movies, Gunn unexpectedly turned the vampire premise on its head and made a piece of art which speaks to the black experience — one of the first of its kind, made entirely by an African-American cast and crew. It's visually poetic, harrowing, profoundly symbolic and rhythmic.
For the lead, Gunn asked Duane Jones to star as archaeologist Dr. Hess. Jones's only previous work as Ben in George A. Romero's seminal horror classic 'Night of the Living Dead' was another first. Here, he brings that same strong presence to the role of a renowned scientist afflicted by the curse of the vampire when his unbalanced assistant (Gunn) stabs him with an ancient dagger made out of bone. One of the more interesting things Gunn does is refuse to show Hess as a blood-lusting monster that kills without remorse. Instead, Jones' portrayal is one of victim, a man tormented by his desire and insatiable craving for blood. And Gunn takes it further by turning the story into a social commentary, paralleling his images of vampirism to that of drug addiction and its power to destroy a once promising life. When the beautiful Marlene Clark enters the picture as Ganja, she's seduced and falls prey to the drug's addictive allure.
Understood from this perspective, the elusive but hypnotic visuals become profoundly meaningful, transforming what was expected as a cheap horror of stereotypes into a significant artistic endeavor romanticizing while also uglifying the decadence of addiction. Some of the film's other creative aspects come from the physical environment surrounding the characters, particularly as a subtle comment that echoes the themes explored by the script. In 1973, when this film was made, seeing African-Americans as prosperous, intelligent people served not only as a bold statement but also as a direct challenge to negative preconceptions and to previous images of the black community. The cinematography oby James E. Hinton and the editing by Victory Kanefsky bring a documentary feel to the proceedings, adding a sense of realism to a fantasy premise. It works stunningly for a haunting film that's as much about the atmosphere and experience evoked by the images as it is about the script's social concerns.
Sadly, the film's claim to notoriety doesn't come from what is seen in 'Ganja & Hess' but from its swift metamorphosis into a wholly different creature known as 'Blood Couple.' Executive producers Jack Jordan and Quentin Kelly, who initially hired Bill Gunn and producer Chiz Schultz, wanted the stereotypical blaxploitation movie. What they got was something else, something more thoughtful and radical, so Gunn's 113-minute allegory was grossly altered to a 78-minute horror feature that was more aligned with the original script and without any of its symbolism. It would be thirty years before audiences could experience Gunn's artistic and revolutionary vision, one which defies the expectations and the genre to which it has been relegated. Granted, it comes with several amateurish failings, but 'Ganja & Hess' is a film that strives for something more profound and impactful. Watched as it was intended by its creator, it is a highly-stylized work of art.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Ganja & Hess' to Blu-ray inside a normal blue keepcase. The Region Free, BD50 disc starts by going straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background.
At the start of the movie, it's explained the original negative had been altered without the permission of writer and director Bill Gunn. When it was finally released as it was originally conceived and intended for its DVD debut in 1998, the presentation was made from the best available 35mm release print. So, it comes as no surprise that this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode isn't exactly in the best shape. And considering the film was shot on 16mm, there is only so much that could be done anyhow.
The 1.66:1 image has a thick grain structure that noticeably fluctuates from one scene to the next, often looking more like mosquito noise. Resolution is terribly inconsistent, somewhat nice and attractive in some areas but very soft and blurry in others. Scratches and dirt are persistent throughout, while the occasional hair suddenly crops up at the bottom of the frame. There are also a few tears and some mild flickering from time to time. Colors are less than satisfactory and rarely appear accurate, though some spots look rather decent.
For what it's worth, the high-def transfer does come with a few positives, particularly in the black levels. However, shadows tend to obscure a great deal of the background information during poorly-lit interiors. Making allowances for the source, contrast is not too weak, but neither is it appealing. Overall definition is pretty much what we'd expect from a print of this quality with several sequences showing good fine object detailing.
The audio presentation doesn't fare much better, plagued with lots of audible noise and hissing in the background. Random popping and cracking sounds are also prevalent throughout, becoming quite the distraction on several occasions. Vocals are accompanied by the same artifacts inherent to the print, along with some warbling, a harsh graininess and reverberation. Certain parts of the dialogue come in at a fairly lower decibel than others or drowned out by other noises in the design. Dynamics are noticeably limited and flat with clipping in some spots, creating an unfortunately listless soundstage for a film that deserves better. The original music of Sam Waymon is also made to suffer due to this, lacking in clarity, warmth or even a bit of life. The same goes for the low-end, which frankly seems non-existent in this unsatisfying lossless mix of 'Ganja & Hess.'
This Blu-ray edition of 'Ganja & Hess' recycles the same set of special features seen in the DVD release from 1998.
One of the most highly-stylized and artistically experimental movies released during the era of Exploitation Cinema, Bill Gunn's 'Ganja & Hess' transcends the definitions of its genre and budgetary limitations. Starring Duane Jones, the film delivers a challenging, visually poetic and rhythmic portrait of drug addiction within a premise of a vampire tormented by his dependency on blood. The Blu-ray is not much a looker, but bearing in mind its history, it is the best possible presentation imaginable given its source. The audio unfortunately doesn't fare much better. Supplements are the same seen in the previous DVD release, but fans should be generally pleased with the overall outcome.