Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on Fire!
Sometimes, you do yourself a disservice seeing things out of order. That’s absolutely the case with me and Ganja & Hess (called Blood Couple in a disowned recut version, and sometimes called Black Vampire). This is very much the second version of this story I’ve seen, and kind of the third. Spike Lee remade this film as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, not one of his better films. There are also a lot of aspects of this in the film Thirst, which is probably the best version of the basic story. It also came out less than a year after Blacula, which will naturally have some similarities. But Ganja & Hess is the first, but the last that I’ve seen. And so I’m naturally going to compare this to other versions of the same story unfairly. What feels derivative here is only derivative in my own mind.
Ganja & Hess is a low-budget experimental horror film. It’s also the second and final starring role for Duane Jones, most famous for his first role in Night of the Living Dead. There are no zombies in this movie. Instead, this is a kind of vampire film. These are not traditional vampires, but they have many of the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses we have come to expect from the bloodsuckers of lore.
Dr. Hess Green (Jones) is a man with a substantial amount of money and an interest in African anthropology. Specifically, he is studying the Myrthian cult of blood drinkers. One night, his unstable assistant George Meda (writer/director Bill Gunn) attempts suicide. Hess stops him, and for his trouble, Meda attacks him with a Myrthian ceremonial dagger. Meda then goes and kills himself. Hess awakens from the attack apparently unscathed, and when he finds Meda’s body, he immediately begins drinking his blood. The ceremonial dagger has turned him into a vampire.
Not wanting to kill, Hess initially steals blood from a doctor’s office, but it soon becomes evident that he needs to find victims to satisfy his hunger. Things are complicated when Meda’s estranged wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up looking for her husband, who happens to be stored in Hess’s wine cellar. Ganja makes no bones about her essentially being a gold digger and wanting money. She and Hess get married, and soon enough he turns her into a vampire, too.
And this is where Ganja & Hess and Thirst start to have a great deal in common. Ganja takes to being a vampire well after some initial problems, while Hess seems to struggle with the need to act as a predator, a realization that takes us into the third act of the film.
There’s a great deal about Ganja & Hess that is interesting. This was clearly made on a shoestring budget, which affects a great deal of how the film comes across. It’s also very clearly intended to be experimental. There’s a lot going on here that is about setting up a mood, of putting the audience into a specific mindset. Whenever the vampiric urges start to overtake Hess, for instance, the soundtrack changes to a loud buzzing noise with what sounds like chanting from an African village. There are a number of artistic shots throughout the film as well. Ganja & Hess is as much an art film as it is a vampire movie, reminiscent in some ways of a film like Don’t Look Now.
But is it good? It is if you go into it with the right mindset. If your expectations for Ganja & Hess are for an exploitative vampire film, you'll likely be disappointed. This is not a particularly violent film (there’s a good amount of blood, of course) and it’s not particularly scary. But I don’t think it’s really intending to be either of those things. This wants to be more about the moral position that Hess finds himself in, albeit reluctantly. Ganja ends up in the same position, of course, and that’s important as well. How these two deal with being thrust into a terrible existence is what makes the film work.
It might be some time before I watch this again, and I’ll probably always like Thirst more, but this is a hell of an interesting film, not the least of which because it really wants to say something not just with the story but in the way in which it was filmed.
Why to watch Ganja & Hess: Experimental horror is often worth seeing.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty rough around the edges.