By Eden Royce
Both Ganja and Hess (1973) and Spike Lee’s remake Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) feature Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist who from an encounter with a cursed knife, develops a thirst for blood. Soon after, he meets Ganja Hightower and shares his curse of immortality with her to ensure they will be together forever. They begin a dangerous romance that strikes at the heart of what we know as love and addiction.
When you look up cult films, as I do, the list inevitably includes at least one Blaxploitation horror movie. The one I see mentioned most often and the one listed on Halliwell’s Film Guide is Blacula. It deserves its place and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so.
One deserving black horror flick that doesn’t get such love is Ganga and Hess.
I have a hard time placing this movie with other films in the Blaxploitation horror genre like J.D.’s Revenge, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde because Ganja and Hess stands alone as almost a genre within itself. Some may find this movie difficult to watch as it drags its feet in some places, and in others rushes through, skipping niftily past plot and minor details like why did getting stabbed with this ancient knife give Dr. Hess a form of vampirism?
Even so, William Gunn’s directorial choices are resonant. G&H is artsy and full of symbolism. In addition, he plays Lafayette Hightower in the film, Ganja’s husband and Hess’s disturbed assistant who stabs him with the aforementioned knife. While I don’t always need or want to be spoon-fed all of the details in a movie, I found Ganja’s throwaway attitude of yes, my husband’s body is in your wine cellar, but do you wanna get together? mystifying.
I appreciated that the characters were not portrayed as stereotypically Black; their roles could be played successfully by any race. Hess, played by Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame, is an anthropologist and is obviously wealthy if his home and the Rolls Royce his driver carts him around in are any indication. Ganja’s tone is acerbic and cutting at first, but Hess is too cool and comfortable in his own skin to rise to the challenge. Eventually, she mellows into a thoughtful, introspective character, assessing her plight, then accepting, and finally reveling in it.
Ganja and Hess is such an unusual movie, part horror, part surreal dream-state montage; it was initially received poorly and almost ended Gunn’s career. The movie was re-released under different titles: Blood Couple, Black Vampire, and Black Evil, which underwhelm and do little to show the true intricate nature of this film. Now it has become a cult favorite that dips and dives, allowing you to observe without explaining much of anything. It’s a lingering movie that taunts you for trying to understand it.
Perhaps that’s why Spike Lee wanted to remake this film. His retelling of these blood-bonded lovers is titled, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, highlighting the original’s footage of African-Americans worshipping and singing gospel hymns, creating a religious tone that echoes throughout both movies.
Financed via Kickstarter, Lee’s film brings the characters into the modern world but loses some of the allure of the original. The long scenes of church worship are there, as are the overlaid images and the characters’ grudging acceptance of blood as necessity.
However, Stephen Tyrone Williams does not have the easy cool of Jones, instead of giving Dr. Hess a stiff, wooden portrayal. British actress Zaraah Abrahams is marginally better, but still feels awkward as Ganja. Abrahams has several nude scenes in the remake, while the original only featured frontal male nudity.
For the most part, Lee’s film remains true to Gunn’s version. A notable exception is that Lee is more forthright with explaining plot, which is not a bad thing. He spends more time developing characters and revealing their intentions and motivations.
Also, Ganja and Hess is grainy and difficult to hear in places as background noise plagued the filming. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is clear and clean, with high image quality and a sturdy soundtrack.
I recommend seeing both movies for different reasons. It would be a good fit for lovers of indie films, those interested in seeing Black characters in leading horror roles, and those who just love a good, surreal experience. Both films give a different take on the blood drinker mythos and that in and of itself makes them refreshingly interesting movies.
Eden Royce’s short stories have appeared in various print and online publications including, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror (2018 and 2019), Sycorax’s Daughters (Bram Stoker award finalist), Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fiyah Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, PodCastle, PseudoPod, and Fireside Fiction. She is also a recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant.
Her debut middle grade Own Voices historical Southern Gothic novel, TYING THE DEVIL’S SHOESTRINGS, is forthcoming from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. More at her website edenroyce.com.