The Art of Addiction (Ganja & Hess, 1973)

Ganja_and_Hess_PosterDr. 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.

Black Fears (Horror Noire, 2019)

Horror_Noir_PosterWhen you think of horror, it can often seem like people of color don’t exist. The Universal classics were devoid of black people. And even when they were present, they were violent savages (1933’s King Kong).

But Horror Noire looks deeper into the presence of the black community in horror films.  It is not really hard to find black horror fans today. And really, horror has a long history of popularity in the black community…but often with very different lessons.

The film opens by noting the most famous horror film of them all is a film a lot of white people do not often cite as a horror film.  But you can see why Birth of a Nation is truly horrific in its story and racist portrayals of black men.

Through interviews with writers, directors and many actors the decades of horror are explored.  Early on the documentary explores forgotten films from the 40’s such as Son of Ingagi by Spencer Williams (most remembered as Andy from Amos & Andy).

There is a heavy look at the 70’s with regard to films that came out during the height of blaxploitation films. While films like Blackenstein do not fare well, Blacula and Ganja and Hess transcend the genre.

There is a terrific statement in the film:

“We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.”

The insights from actors in regards to their roles is key. Kelly Jo Minter, Ken Sagoes and Miguel A. Nùñez Jr all bristle at the notion that their roles were incidental. Of course, they were aware that in many cases they were the only people on the set of color…but as Sagoes notes, he was happy to have a check.

Horror Noire is a worthwhile documentary that I found fascinating and educational. I highly recommend sitting down for it.

As an aside…Jordan Peele…while you are changing the face of horror…please do not forget about Keith David, Ken Foree and Tony Todd.

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