A cursory description of Bill Gunn’s 1973 cult classic Ganja & Hess is almost certain to give people the wrong idea. While its tale of an anthropologist who acquires a taste for blood after being stabbed with an ancient dagger is certainly reminiscent of various horror and blaxploitation tropes, Ganja & Hess doesn’t fit comfortably in either category. Lyrical, elusive and only marginally bound to narrative conventions, the film fascinates and provokes.
Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones stars as Hess Green, a scientist studying the blood-drinking Myrthian culture. He hires a research assistant, George (Gunn himself), to live with him and aid him in his study, but George is a bad fit from the start, cryptic and unhinged — a stark contrast to Hess’s intellectual composure. It’s not long before George goes completely off the rails, stabbing Hess with a ceremonial Myrthian dagger before committing suicide. When Hess awakes, he finds himself healed but bloodthirsty, making use of George’s body as the first of many conquests.
The word vampire is never spoken — or even intimated — in Ganja & Hess, and the film is similarly ambiguous about the meaning behind Hess’s sudden transformation. When George’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), shows up looking for him, she is soon caught up in the bloodlust as well, falling in love with Hess in the process.
Gunn achieves a hypnotic, transfixing quality with his languid long takes and distinctive sound design, which makes supremely effective use of a recurring African chant. In the midst of Hess’s addiction to blood, there’s an examination of African American identity and its ties to the Christian church, filtered through an extraordinary scene where Hess visits a Pentecostal congregation, looking for absolution.
Ganja & Hess is neither easily categorized nor easily interpreted. One often gets the sense that Gunn was bursting with ideas that he had to get up on the screen, and their coexistence in the film makes for a rich, dense work. It’s a film that necessitates multiple viewings, but for those receptive to its singular construction, its emotional immediacy is apparent from the get-go.