It’s frustrating to have one of the most compelling and challenging films you’ve ever seen saddled with a title that at worst invites lame open mic night-level jokes, and at best doesn’t evoke anything close to the special quality of the film it signifies. On the other hand, if you’re trying to push a weird little film on some friends and they can’t get past the awkward title, you’ve got a nice litmus test for what to pimp to whom going forward.
Ganja & Hess is such a film, a blaxploitation footnote that played in its original form for less than a week in 1973 before it was pulled from distribution, re-cut, retitled, and forgotten about until a grass-roots movement to restore the film culminated in a DVD release in 1998. (A version three minutes longer was released in 2006; both discs are currently out of print, though you can watch one on Amazon for $2.99.) Today its odd title is guaranteed to keep it off the radar of all but the most archaeological of film buffs.
While the film was pitched (and financed) as a horror flick, it’s closer in tone to Nicholas Roeg’s inscrutable, non-linear The Man Who Fell To Earth, which Ganja & Hess predates by three years. Director Bill Gunn allegedly filmed a script which contained more mainstream horror elements, but later claimed he intended all along to remove most of them, leaving a frustrating but weirdly resonant meditation on addiction, cultural extinction, and the struggle of the “Blackman” (Gunn’s term) to retain his identity.
We get early hints of Gunn’s preoccupation with the slippery nature of identity – the film begins with a voiceover of a minister (Sam Waymon) discussing his faith over handheld, documentary-style shots of him commanding a church service. But we soon find out that the minister’s main job is as a driver for Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones), and we learn from some oblique exposition that the well-to-do “doctor of anthropology and geology” is studying artifacts from an extinct civilization of African blood-worshippers called the Myrthians. As the surviving crew members note on the commentary, seeing a respected, affluent black man onscreen, being chauffeured around New York in a Rolls Royce, was quite a bit of culture shock, and likely a hell of a way to start your film in 1973.
Hess studies dead civilizations; Gunn’s camera suggests he is also part of one. That’s about as overtly political as the film gets: there are no rallying cries for equality or quaint-but-clumsy speeches about race, just frame after lonely frame of Gunn’s Blackmen occupying near-deserted bars, sparsely populated streets, and big empty rooms. Even dialogue scenes are framed in ways that isolate the individual. As Hess ponders a relic and dreams of Myrthia, there’s a genuine feeling of mournfulness, of memory bleeding out into history.
The plot is set in motion when Hess hires George Meda (played by the film’s director) as his assistant. We find out as abruptly as Hess does that Meda is out of his mind. After dinner, Hess finds Meda sitting in a tree, threatening to hang himself in Hess’ yard (easily the film’s funniest exchange, where Hess asks Meda to consider the amount of trouble his suicide would bring to “the only colored on the block”). Meda then gives a long speech about his suicidal impulses with a stalactite of snot dangling from his mustache. In the very next scene, for reasons we’re never sure of, he attacks Hess in bed, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger which transforms Hess into a blood drinker (the word “vampire” is never used in the film). This is a confusing bit of action, as we’re told of the event (and its consequences) via title cards during the film’s opening, and we’re told again of Hess’ condition during the chauffeur’s voiceover ten or fifteen minutes before the stabbing occurs.
Thinking he’s killed Hess, Meda takes a bath, brushes his teeth (using his bathwater), and kills himself. Hess is seen sitting up in bed, no worse for wear, and upon discovering Meda’s body begins to drink his blood. Much of this film can’t rightly qualify as horror, but the sight of Jones slurping congealed blood off the bathroom floor is a moment of genuine revulsion (allegedly for the actor as much as the audience), and says everything the film aims to about addiction.
Meda ends up in Hess’ walk-in freezer, and Hess begins the life of an addict - petty theft from a blood bank, cruising bad neighborhoods for his fix. Soon Meda’s estranged wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up looking for him. From here the film becomes a kind of love story, before sending the title characters down a road of increasing debasement and self-loathing to feed their craving. As their addiction brings them together, it slowly drains their humanity. METAPHOR!
I’m not quite in the “masterpiece” camp on this film, but I’ve been fascinated by it for nearly 20 years (I watched a sort of incomprehensible 16mm print back in 1992). On a first viewing, the film often feels a bit patchwork and unwieldy in trying to get the basic narrative setup across, as if Gunn has so much to say, but is battling his own framework in the process. And his subtext feels at times as confusing as his talky, wandering narrative. The Christian church scenes are messy, sweaty bits of handheld verite, while the flashbacks/dreams of the Myrthian Queen are shot in loving, elegant slow motion. Is he criticizing the Western European eclipsing of African culture? It often seems so, but the film’s resolution suggests otherwise.
Similarly, posing Ganja and Hess as a well-off black couple in 1973 seems a deliberate, progressive stance. But why are they then portrayed as such assholes about their status? Hess’ black butler is a constant object of their ridicule and derision (by Gunn as well; the director literally robs him of all identity in almost every shot, his head cut off by the top of the frame in nearly all of his scenes). Is he criticizing Ganja and Hess for their bourgeois social status, or the butler for his willing subjugation? Or both? And the film’s final shots are guaranteed to frustrate as much as they resonate.
But what seem like problems with the film begin, on repeated viewings, to feel like stubborn badges of honor. And you begin to realize it’s not that Gunn CAN’T make a more traditional story; he simply refuses to. (There are 17 minutes of deleted scenes on YouTube which connect the details of the evasive plot; Gunn shot them and threw them away.) There are just enough moments in the film to show you that Gunn could have easily gone a more mainstream route,and his use of ambient sound is cutting edge for 1973. He’s not an amateur. But not every movie is willing to meet you halfway. There are films that are fun to watch; Ganja & Hess compels you to watch. There are films that ask more questions than they answer; Ganja & Hess answers zero questions, nor does it aim to. But maybe that’s why it lingers in the brain.
It’s such a cheap bit of irony that a film rife with subtext about a dying culture devouring itself was carved up and shortened by over 30 minutes to make it more palatable to the blaxploitation crowd. As the legend goes, Gunn took a single print with him to Cannes, where it received a standing ovation and was named one of the ten best American films of the decade (in 1973, but still).
New York critics were less impressed, and Gunn’s film was pulled from release after playing less than a week in one theater, after which distributors hired another filmmaker to re-cut the film into the 76 minute Blood Couple (also released in various formats and markets as Black Evil, Black Vampire, Blackout: The Moment of Terror, Vampires of Harlem, and Double Possession for good measure). Stories vary, but at some point Gunn stashed the print from Cannes at the Museum of Modern Art, and once the original negative was reworked, this became the only surviving print of Gunn’s original cut, and remained so for nearly two decades. (For the whole, amazing history of the film’s rescue from oblivion, check out the great Video Watchdog article by Tim Lucas and David Walker, reprinted on the DVD. Reading it, one realizes it’s nothing less than a miracle that the film exists at all.)
Gunn never directed another film (he started work on the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest, but was replaced by Monte Hellman). He returned to the stage and television, and ended up at the kitchen table on the set of The Cosby Show as one of Bill Cosby’s poker buddies. Gunn died in 1989. In the end, the burial of Ganja & Hess perfectly illustrated the kind of cultural extinction which preoccupied the filmmaker.
Alien Raiders (Rock, 2008) - Brian Collins’ Selection
There are guys who make their entire careers out of movies with interchangeable titles; you look at their IMDb and it’s like Deadly Planet, Invasion Force, Deadly Force, Planet Invasion... you get the idea. So when I got a copy of something called Alien Raiders, I figured it was just the latest dartboard-created title from one of those guys. So imagine my surprise to discover that not only was it from some of the folks behind Blair Witch Project (one of my favorite movies), but it was actually a really solid and cool flick.
The movie is about a group of badasses (lead by 24‘s Carlos Bernard) who hold the occupants of a supermarket hostage as they seek for an alien lifeform that has taken over the body of a human; sort of The Thing crossed with The Mist. It unfolds almost in realtime as the badasses attempt to lock the supermarket down, and almost instantly lose the one guy who can “spot” an alien that is impersonating a human. Unlike The Thing, it doesn’t become a giant monster movie, nor do 1-2 humans eventually find themselves outnumbered by the alien folk - it’s just a tight, simple mystery as fingers are pointed and the number of suspects are gradually whittled down by the murderous alien in disguise.
A big part of why it works is that they don’t complicate things with lengthy exposition or convoluted backstories. The movie gives you only what you need to know in order to understand what happens in it, and I love it for it. Too many low budget movies try to make up for their lack of big set pieces or giant made up worlds by just having people talk endlessly about them, and that is the wrong way to go. SHOW us, don’t TELL us. And if you can’t afford to show us, then stick with what you can. Director Ben Rock and his writers understood that, and as a result the movie turned out a lot better than it had any right to be with that title (which Rock wasn’t a fan of either - it was forced on him by the distributor).
Note - as with Blair Witch, where supplementary material fleshed out the mythology of the story, the DVD has some stuff that does indeed provide some background on the team, the aliens, etc. To me, that’s the way to do these things; if you didn’t like the movie then you can skip it, but if you dug it there’s more to enjoy (another reason why streaming media is not a viable option for me - you’ll miss out on cool stuff like this). Either way - as with the Blair Witch “Dossier” explaining the Rustin Parr story, the movie doesn’t “need” this material to get its point across, but can add another layer of interest to the proceedings, whereas if it was included in the movie it would just slow things down.