Ganja & Hess, a cult film difficult to locate let alone see, features an anemic and wandering plot, disparate run times and seven aka’s, one of which falsely smacks of drug orgies but most of which help doom it to dismissal as just another of its contemporary blaxploitation brothers. It’s a cheapo independent film whose exasperating but unintentionally atmospheric pointillism survives “restoration to its original [113-minute mono] version” in To Save and Project: The Fourth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.
Anticipating aspects of dozens of better-known pieces like Tony Scott’s unjustly disparaged The Hunger and Del Toro’s Cronos, writer-director Bill Gunn’s 1973 Black Vampire carries its new title of Ganja & Hess (referring to its protagonists’ Christian names) -- after appearing with such alternate billings as Black Evil, Blackout: One Moment of Terror, Blood Couple, Double Possession and Vampires of Harlem.
From the get-go, there is loose confusion. Preceding Pastor Luther Williams’ (Nina Simone's brother Sam Waymon, who did much of the music) hellfire gospel services, the first of three unneeded section titles -- “Victim,” “Survival,” “Letting Go” -- and random flashbacks to the head-feathered African Queen of Myrthia (Mabel King), printed titles indicate that Doctor of Anthropological Studies Hess Green was transformed into that which “cannot die or be killed” on being stabbed with an ancient dagger, one wound each for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Whether this occurred on the Dark Continent, as implied, or purposelessly at the hands of drunken suicidal assistant and houseguest George Meda (Gunn), as obliquely shown, is not very clear.
The house is a landscaped upstate New York mansion with African and tortured Catholic art and maintained by butler-valet-cook-housekeeper Archie (Leonard Jackson), protective of master and privy to secrets like the wine-cellar freezer stocked with a body and plasma stolen from hospitals. (The Pastor moonlights chauffeuring the Rolls but not the Jaguar roadster.) Like a dream, the movie is full of unexplained vignettes of a silver-masked white man, a crooked black pimp (Tommy Lane) and his prostitute (Candece Tarpley), a white woman (Tara Fields) compliantly waiting with infant in arms on a city stoop -- bedded and bloodied -- and the hero’s out-of-left-field son Rico (Enrico Fales) at a Marienbad-like garden party.
George finally summons the nerve to shoot himself -- if “undead,” he nevertheless dies -- and Hess kneels to lap the copious blood from the tiles, although thereafter his preference is to drink what looks like V8 in kitchen tumblers. His wardrobe fluctuating as widely as the music score, from natty suits or V-necks and jeans to Native American blankets or topless pajama pants, Duane Jones is most imposing as “addict” Hess, and it is an injustice that, like Blacula and its sequel’s William Marshall, the former English professor was limited by his race to a half-dozen mediocre parts and movie-buff celebrity as the first African-American horror hero, Ben in Romero’s début Night of the Living Dead.
Next in this meandering but stylish jumble, the murdered cold-storaged man’s broke, insistent, obscene and coolly funny wife calls. Ganja Meda is a rather stock part written with excrescences that show up the actress’ limitations, e.g., the monologue about Boston mother’s selfishness leading to a decision to “always take care of [number one], do whatever had to be done.” But minor Russ Meyer and black-violence-movie veteran Marlene Clark is beautiful, elegant, and impressed with her laconic host’s masculinity plus, one assumes, the wealth and lifestyle.
After amusing bouts of back-and-forthing, they surprise us all by getting married, till death do you part, upon which he realizes that “I really want you to live forever.” Vampire is never anywhere breathed, but the unshown initiation process is pretty standard even though, as always, only certain victims become one. The male partner becomes nauseated and vomits after imbibing, and the unblushing bride, too, has her balky moments but, in sexual feeding frenzy, feasts on another dinner guest (Richard Harrow), an outreach volunteer who appears next in line for unasked-for immortality.
Still, post-drinking qualms have not seemed an issue, but his task done, at thirty-eight Hess wants out, “release into the bosom of his Creator, having suffered.” So, back to Rev. Williams’ church, a scene emotional and real enough to be actual footage. Daylight and physical crosses do not harm these creatures, but a laying-on of hands, a sharp dozen repetitions of Jesus’ name, and the will of the accursed outcast, do the trick. In widow’s black, Ganja turns from tears to a smile, because her new mate rises in magnificently endowed glory from the waters.
(Released by Kelly/Jordan Enterprises and rated "R" by MPAA.)