When Bill Gunn's experimental horror feature Ganja & Hess (1973) premiered at Cannes, it received a standing ovation and the critics' choice prize, but when it came to releasing the film, its green producers, who'd commissioned Gunn to make a "black vampire" movie a la Blacula, balked. It wasn't the exploitation film they thought they'd be getting from the accomplished playwright and actor, despite a story about a prominent anthropologist Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), who gets stabbed by his crazed assistant George Meda (Gunn), becomes immortal, then falls in love with the assistant's wife Ganja (Marlene Clark). Instead, it was a fever dream of monologues, African song and mythology, American anxiety and meandering uncut scenes about personal pain and suicide.
The approach to the restoration of Ganja & Hess can be defined by one flaw Kino Lorber retained: a hair in the grate. In the first scenes of the film, after a prologue explaining the rules for this story's particular vampirism, a preacher talks about Christ to his congregation, while the voiceover of actor Duane Jones as Dr. Hess drones on about bodies and blood, his musings more sound collage than dialogue. A long hair appears in one shot, running up the lower left quarter of the screen, a signal that in this remaster, the grains have not been sanded away.
Scenes often seem entirely improvised, so you wonder if there was a full script at all. Or if, say, as Meda philosophizes about seeing himself as both victim and killer in his own attempted suicides, Gunn was riffing on the dynamics of his own depression. The story can be difficult to track yet is also wildly intriguing.
Bill Gunn, Fima NoveckDuane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, John Hoffmeister, Leonard Jackson, Sam Waymon, Mabel King, Betty Barney, Enrico Fales, Tara FieldsBill GunnChiz SchultzKino Lorber Films
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