Ganja & Hess 

Bill Gunn's singular vampire vision returns

Wednesday, Mar 26 2008
Blaxploitation was hardly all it’s been cracked up to be — there’s a reason why Pam Grier’s performance as Jackie Brown in Quentin Tarantino’s loving genre homage is vastly richer than all her work in such original ’70s action yarns as Coffy and Foxy Brown combined. Still, the short-lived fad is alone justified by having enabled the existence of Bill Gunn’s unabashedly ambitious and arty 1973 vampire psychotrip Ganja & Hess, in which a wealthy doctor (Night of the Living Dead “star” Duane Jones) afflicted with incurable blood lust embarks on an Eros-Thanatos pas de deux with the sexy wife (Marlene Clark) of his soon-deceased assistant (Gunn himself). Gunn, a novelist, actor, screenwriter (he had just penned Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and The Angel Levine) and legendary figure of black theater, was probably hired to make another Blacula, but he asserted his fiercely independent stance by delivering a mind-boggling meditation on myth and sex, cultural and religious identity, hunger, power, addiction, and much, much more. Actually, Ganja & Hess’ funky brew can hardly be digested on one hallucinatory viewing, but it rocks all the same — a reminder that blaxploitation was spawned in 1971 by the surprise success of an equally independent (and socially conscious) vision, Melvin van Peebles’ stick-it-to-The-Man-mindfuck Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Needless to say, Gunn’s producers did not approve, releasing (unsuccessfully) a butchered version called Blood Couple instead. Cinefamily shows the one and only original director’s cut of Ganja & Hess, which Gunn took to Cannes and which has languished as a cult item in Europe since. It remains Gunn’s major cinematic legacy, a work both soulful and searing and undoubtedly singular — right down to its vampire suicide by self-exposure to the cross following an extended, ecstatic gospel church service. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Sat., March 29, 10:30 p.m. www.silentmovietheatre.com)

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