It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Today, it’s time to dissect the dreamy horror gem Ganja & Hess.
I firmly stand by my belief that the 1970s was the best decade for horror movies. So many incredible and influential horror films were released in that span of time, and Ganja & Hess is a part of that pantheon. While it does have some of the bloody bravado of other horror films in this era, Ganja & Hess stands out as a dreamy and experimental tale of vampirism.
Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is a prominent anthropologist who is attacked by his mentally unstable assistant George Meda (Bill Gunn, who also directs). Dr. Green is stabbed three times with an ancient dagger from the Myrthian civilization which he had been studying. His would-be murderer commits suicide and Dr. Green awakens to lap his assistant’s blood off the floor. The dagger has turned him into a vampire, immortal and hungry for blood. When George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for her husband, she and Dr. Green begin a beautiful, bloody, brutal affair.
Ganja & Hess marked both Duane Jones’s return to the big screen and his return to the horror genre, following his revolutionary performance in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Dr. Green is a complicated man, barring the unquenchable thirst for blood. He is an anthropologist, a scholar, the only Black man in his neighborhood, and Jones portrays him with gravitas. You can constantly see the wheels turning in his mind, a man who fought so hard for control who is beginning to lose it.
Ganja Meda is Dr. Hess’s perfect counterpart, preferring to loudly speak her mind rather than contemplate in silence. Her monologue about her mother that comes a little more than halfway through the film deserves all the accolades. The two have electric on-camera chemistry due in no small part to this push and pull dynamic.
The cinematography is gorgeous and fresh, even though the film is nearly 50 years old. Cinematographer James E. Hinton severs parts of the human body in his framing; a pair of legs dangling from a tree, a red-nailed hand gripping a phone… Frequently the only bodies shown in full are statues or paintings, who stare out at the audience while the soundtrack crescendos. In a story about the body and the pains and pleasures therein, the cinematography captures these sensual highs and violent lows in an evocative and striking way.
Gunn takes a classic tale of vampirism and elevates it into a dreamy film that flits between worlds ancient and modern. He ponders religion, sex, and African-American identity against the backdrop of Dr. Green’s lavish mansion and the dark deeds committed inside. Ganja & Hess is a phenomenal work of 70s horror, of experimental film, of cinema period. – Audrey Griffin
Ganja & Hess is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.