Ganja & Hess is an acquired taste (pun intended), but for those who acquire it, it’s a vivid, stylish, introspective trip. It’s also utterly weird and confusing in that art-house, experimental ’60s/’70s sort of way. The story revolves around Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead fame), who takes on a new associate, George (director Bill Gunn), who turns out to be a suicidal manic depressive (Can we say “background check”?). As suicidal manic depressives tend to do, George goes insane and stabs Hess with an ancient dagger cursed with vampirism that happens to be lying around. Oopsie! George then proceeds to kill himself, leaving Hess to live the life of the undead.
George’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), decides, six months down the line, that she should maybe check on her husband. She doesn’t seem too distraught, though, as she immediately hooks up with Hess, even after finding out that he’s keeping her dead husband in the basement. Of course, marrying a vampire can only lead to his inevitable desire to have you live forever with him, so Hess turns Ganja, and she must deal with it like any good wife would.
The pace of this film is very, very slow, but it’s intriguing in its attempt to show how “real” vampires might live. They don’t have fangs and can walk in the sunlight (although they do seem to have a problem with crosses); they just need to feed. Hess satiates his thirst by stealing from blood banks and feeding on hookers, but hey, who doesn’t?
The dialogue heightens the realism, with its natural, ad-libbed (some might say rambling) feel. Director Gunn and cinematographer James Hinton paint a dizzying mosaic of sight and sound that immerses you in this hypnotic world — made all the more memorable by the performances of Jones and Clark. At times the film comes off as a bit pretentious, as it bombards us with religious, sexual and Afro-centric references reflective of the burgeoning sexual revolution and the racial dynamics of the post-Civil Rights Movement — but it’s still impressive even if you don’t fully “get” it. Ganja & Hess isn’t for those looking for a gory horror-fest, or even low-brow Blaxploitation fare, but if you’re open to artsy-fartsy musings on life, love and death, you might enjoy this film. And you’re probably a hipster.