Thursday, October 25, 2012

GANJA & HESS (1973)

This film was marketed as a Blaxploitation-vampire movie but it's really an experimental art film about addiction, art, culture and religion.  It's interesting but with a narrative structure that borders on incoherent, it's hard to stick with, and is almost certainly the freakiest movie ever shown on Turner Classic Movies. Hess Green, a wealthy anthropology professor, has studied the ancient Myrthian culture and has a Myrthian dagger among the artifacts in his home. He hires an unstable artist named George as an assistant, and the first thing George does is climb a tree in his back yard and contemplate hanging himself. That night, George goes nuts, stabs Hess with the ancient dagger, and kills himself. Hess doesn't die—instead he becomes a sort of vampire: immortal, able to live in sunlight, and addicted to drinking blood which he gets by killing prostitutes and stealing blood from a blood bank. When Ganja, George's wife, arrives from Amsterdam looking for him, she moves into Hess's house and the two begin an affair. She discovers George’s body but that doesn't stop her from marrying Hess. He soon turns her into a vampire, but the two aren't happy.  He reads in a Myrthian document that the only way to die—get ready for a lot of prepositions—is to fall beneath the shadow of the symbol of the destruction of a powerful god (in a word, for Christians, a cross). Hess goes to a church where his chauffeur preaches and tries to get salvation, but in the end wants the cross's shadow. Ganja, however, has a different idea.

I must warn you that out of any 5 viewers/critics who write about this movie, you are likely to get 5 different plot summaries. Backstory is almost non-existent, except for the occasional moments when you're hit over the head with it, as in the opening moments when the explanation for Hess's vampirism (the word "vampire" is never used) is spelled out for us. Chronology is also a problem—in the first five minutes, we're told twice that he's a blood addict, but apparently he isn't one yet in the onscreen action until a few more minutes in. In style and tone, this is much closer to a French new wave movie than a Universal horror film. Bill Gunn, the writer and director, seems to be unaware of how human beings interact, and the performances, even down to the lowliest pimp and whore, are strangely mannered, giving the feeling at times like we're watching a filmed play translated from a language no one quite understands. Duane Jones, the hero of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Marlene Clark do the best they can do as Hess and Ganja; Gunn, who plays George (pictured at right), almost ruins the film with his pretentious, seemingly improvised and endless monologues about art and neuroses. His death scene, though, is a good one. A later sex scene between Clark and Richard Harrow as a dinner guest who she eventually kills is very well done. This film has quite a reputation now; I can't join in on the over-the-top praise, but if you want to see BLACULA as directed by Ingmar Bergman, go for it. [TCM; also on DVD]

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