Read This Before You Watch “Ganja & Hess”

First off, let go of your expectations. “Ganja & Hess” (1973) is not your typical American horror film. It’s actually much more like a European avant-garde film from the 1960s or 70s. Think “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” or “El Topo.” Or for some American comparisons, think “THX1138” or “Eraserhead.”

Coming in at over two hours and subverting most expectations of a linear narrative, this one requires patience. The scenes sometimes go on for a long time. The camera work is jiggly in the style of cinema verité. The framing of shots can seem odd, even off-putting or wrong. The dialogue and acting are naturalistic but can seem banal.

You might need to take breaks and watch it in sections to avoid frustration. That’s fine. Come back to it when you’re ready.

However, if you give yourself time to adapt to the pace and structure, to accept the movie on its own terms and really take this one in, your experience of “Ganja & Hess” can be very rich indeed.

When writer-director Bill Gunn accepted the task of making a Blaxploitation-style vampire movie, his producers Kelly and Jordan certainly did not expect, let alone appreciate, the masterpiece of avant-garde film he created with “Ganja & Hess.” Despite the film’s receiving a standing ovation upon release at the Cannes Film Festival and being declared one of the ten best films of decade by French critics, its American producers cut over half an hour from Gunn’s version, replacing it with footage not found in the original, and released an incoherent mess that flopped in the U.S.

The producers wanted “Shaft” or “Blacula,” but Gunn gave them a film that had more in common with the work of art house favorites Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, and Rainier Werner Fassbinder. “Ganja & Hess” is many things; it not a typical Hollywood B-movie designed to be a midnight creature feature.

The recut version prepared by the producers for American distribution was a messy doppelganger called “Blood Couple,” a movie that Gunn disavowed.

And, so, tragically, the “Ganja & Hess” became for many years a lost classic. For decades, the only way to see the film through screenings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art who had secured a copy of Gunn’s original. This obscurity, however, only built its reputation as a neglected work of genius, an exemplar of early independent African-American film making.

But all those accolades can seem meaningless when you first sit down with this movie and try to watch it. Fifteen minutes in, you’ll be asking yourself, “What the hell?”

So, let go of normal ideas of story. There is a plot, but that’s not the main point.

Probably the best way to approach this film for the first time is as a character study, specifically of the two title characters, Ganja Meda (played by Marlene Clark) and Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones), but also of several minor characters like George Meda (Bill Gunn), the Reverand Luther Williams (Sam Waymon) who also serves as a chauffeur to Hess, and even the manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson).

Listen to how the characters talk and interact. Focus on the little stories they tell about themselves (like when Ganja describes her relationship with her mother). Pay attention to those weird camera shots and consider what they show and why as well as what they don’t show and why certain things might be kept out of frame. Think about the clothes and props and the sets. Consider the colors of things (like how all the blood is that ridiculously bright red).

As with most textual analysis, the best place to start is with a simple summary. Try describing what you’re seeing and experiencing to yourself, in even very basic terms. This exercise can be quite illuminating.

Taking an overview can also help you start to recognize specific elements that are confusing or troubling, which helps move you away from the frustrating feeling that nothing makes any sense.

Read through my discussion questions too. Hopefully those will give you ways into this difficult film as well.

Again, just try to be patient. You’ll find there are lots of things to enjoy and appreciate about this movie even before we start to unpack it together.

I can’t wait to hear what you think. We’ll have lots to discuss next week.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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