Directed by and co-starring Bill Gunn (of stage and Cosby show fame) this film tells the story of an Anthropologist, Dr. Hess (Duane Jones-Night of the living dead) who is ritualistically stabbed multiple time while traveling in Africa and becomes what could be considered a modern day vampire. Honestly, the only similarity is the craving for blood, which is explained in the bonus material to be more of an addiction. It’s explained that the studios wanted a horror/vampire flick and the director wanted a film that was an in-depth look at addiction. The median was “Ganja & Hess”. The main conflict transpires when an overly jumpy and philosophical assistant George (Bill Gunn) commits suicide at the doctor’s estate. The event leaves the doctor with the unfortunate job of hiding the body, which in turns leads George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark-Night of the Cobra Woman) calling upon the doctor to find her husband.
Though their first meeting is a bit bumpy, Dr. Hess & Ganja become instant friends and later lovers. Ms. Clark’s performance is honest, funny and refreshingly real. While Duane Jones is mesmerizing and intense with few words. And though Gunn plays the jester in this trio, he lays out raw philosophical dread and existentialism that is no joking matter. In addition to the main plot is the inclusion of Dr. Hess’s driver who is also a minister (as well as the narrator and composer of the title song). He is a glue or moral compass of sorts and helps the viewer contextualize some of the main characters inner conflicts.
What makes this film special (and for some difficult) is the slow and purposefully philosophical look at relationships and addiction. There are so many more layers to this film than being just a vampire flick with black people. It’s like beat poetry for the soul with visceral undertones. A MUST SEE AGAIN-Director’s Cut ONLY!!
Ganja & Hess (1973) USA
Written/Directed by Bill Gunn
Starring Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon & Mabel King