Dr. Hess is attacked by his assistant, who promptly commits suicide. When he awakens, Hess has no wounds and he has a compulsion to drink blood. He stores his assistant’s body for safe keeping, but then is contacted by Ganja, the assistant’s wife. Ganja discovers her dead husband, but ultimately is both seductress and seduced by Hess.
It is hard to describe the film, because it is more of an art film than a horror film. Playwright Bill Gunn was hired to make a blaxploitation horror film by the studio, but had little interest in making another knockoff. The end result is a vampire film that is a surreal exploration of addiction and seeking redemption. It never makes use of the word vampire, Hess is able to walk in the daylight.
The audience in theaters was not interested, wanting something more violent. But Gunn was not interested in this. The studio wanted an alternate cut, but Gunn, his editor Victor Kanefsky and Cinematographer James Hinton all refused, being very happy with the film they made. When the studio recut the film, Gunn walked out of a showing a few minutes in. Ever confident in the work, he submitted his original edit to the Cannes Film festival where it received a standing ovation. After decades of the recut and retitled film being the only version available for rental, the correct cut was created for DVD.
The movie ends on a fascinating note, as the film is full of religious imagery, with Christianity seeming to haunt Hess throughout the film. It is interesting to see Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones in the role of Hess. He is more sedated in this role, often being pensive and observant of his surroundings.
For a lot of horror fans, this film may be a tough watch. It moves at a very subdued pace, but it is such a fascinating watch. Gunn’s vision is so unique, not just for black horror, but horror in general. I found myself wonderfully confounded and intrigued by the final decisions of Hess within the film.
Ganja & Hess is a fascinating exploration of vampires, addiction, religion and redemption.
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