Ganja & Hess (1973) was no doubt intended by its producers to capitalize on the success of the previous year's Blacula, but they must have realized after viewing just the first few minutes what is obvious to anybody: Bill Gunn had produced an offbeat, arthouse indie film expressing a unique personal sensibility.
The film played Cannes, the only American production to do so that year, but was roundly ignored or condescended to by the American press. Gunn was dismissive of the press coverage: "Another critic wondered where was the race problem. If he looks closely, he will find it in his own review." Subsequently the film was re-cut and escaped under a variety of demeaning titles (Black Evil, Black Vampire, etc.). The small sub-set of about ten blaxploitation films with horror themes are quite interesting but remarkably homogenous: only Blackenstein and Ganja & Hess move differently, the former because it's beyond incompetent, the latter because it's seen through a poet's eye.
Gunn, who also scripted Hal Ashby's remarkable The Landlord (a truly acerbic, forthright and tender film about race in America), and had directed a movie for Warners, Stop (1970), which the studio declined to even release, may have had somewhat uncertain narrative skills as a director. You really have to squint to detect the plot points in this vampire love story—but it has atmosphere, a trancelike power, and a weird audio-visual flux of chanting, fractured montage and surprise musical moments.
Duane Jones, iconic lead of Night of the Living Dead, is almost unrecognizable as anthropology prof Hess Green, and gives a muted, inward performance. In a twist on usual movie mythology, he's vampirized by three blows from a cursed African dagger. Gunn himself plays the disturbed man who does this to him, before blowing his own brains out. The first act of haemophagy we see is Jones lapping up Gunn's spilled blood from the bathroom floor, an icky image later borrowed by Guillermo Del Toro for his Cronos (1985).
When Gunn's wife Ganja (Marlene Clark, the lead in Gunn's previous film) shows up looking for him, an unlikely love affair begins, leading to Hess ultimately passing on his curse to make her immortal. But right from the first titles "he became addicted and unable to die" the film has characterized immortality as a kind of disability, and Christian spirituality ultimately offers an escape route. The film is notable (and this is something it shares with other blaxploitation horrors such as J.D.'s Revenge and Abby) for taking religion seriously, with long baptist choir scenes that outstay any narrative requirement to impart their incantatory impact. In Hammer horrors of the time, a crucifix was just another weapon, imbued with no more significance than garlic or the wooden stake.
The movie is by no means perfect: while there's something appealing about the way we're made to guess at plot developments and character motivation much of the time, the imagery alternates between dazzling flashes and juxtapositions and rather poorly-framed, listless conversation scenes in cluttered locations. Gunn is stronger on atmosphere and experimental effects than on straight drama. The dialogue, which sounds semi-improvised, is poorly recorded and uncertainly synchronized, fighting to be heard above a roar of background traffic.
But some of the less prosaic sequences are stunning, in particular a love scene where the closely-miked sounds of skin and sheets sliding together, and the sweat-glistening, telephoto intimacy of the soft, grainy photography, create a feeling of time arrested, the world nullified, nothing existing outside the couple. It's one of the few sexual scenes that captures that aspect of what the act can actually feel like. It transcends the erotic.
When Vera Chytilova was preparing to make Daisies (1966), friends advised her, "Don't do it! You'll break your neck." She replied, "But I want to break my neck." That's what Gunn achieved: a film distinctive enough to be worth remembering, but so distinctive it virtually ended his career.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.