A quick history lesson - pioneering black filmmaker/writer/playwright Bill Gunn directed and wrote Ganja & Hess in 1973. When it opened to dismal results in New York later that year, Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, the film's distributor, yanked the film from the market and solid it to Heritage, who re-cut it to cash in on the booming blaxploitation craze of the time (and destroying the original negative in the process). After Fima Noveck had re-cut the movie, it was re-released as Blood Couple almost a half an hour of footage missing, re-dubbed dialogue, and a bad synthesizer score. All Day Entertainment initially restored Bill Gunn's original cut of the film for their DVD release years back (there were two versions, both now long out of print, the later restored with an additional three minutes), and Kino steps up to the plate and brings it to Blu-ray, newly restored in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation from the original surviving elements.
OK, so with that condensed history lesson (courtesy of the informative extra features from where this info was gleamed, but more on that later) out of the way, what's the deal with the movie?
Duane Jones (of Night Of The Living Dead) is Dr. Hess Green. Hess is an archaeologist who is taking care of business at an excavation project wherein he and his team hope to uncover the surviving artifacts of Myrthia, a long dead civilization. Things take a bad turn when Hess' assistant, George (writer/director Bill Gunn), stabs him with a bejeweled dagger and then kills himself. Oddly enough, when Hess awakens after the assault, he finds that not only are his wounds completely healed, but he's now obsessed with human blood.
He soon figures out that the knife his former assistant used to stab him was contaminated with vampiric germs and because they've mixed with his own blood, he's now essentially become a vampire (though he's ok with sunlight). When Hess meets up with a beautiful woman named Ganja (Marlene Clark of Switchblade Sisters), the wife of his late partner, she soon falls for him. Though at first it seems that they can be happy together, she doesn't know yet about Hess' condition or about the way that her husband died - and when she does find out, things might get a little more complicated...
Those looking for a caped blood sucker film would do best to stick with the Hammer of Universal vampire films, as Ganja & Hess plays more like an acid soaked head trip than an actual gothic horror film. There's a whole lot of metaphorical action going on contrasting African and Christian ceremony and the film can be a tad alienating if you don't pay close attention. If you do though, you'll find you're rewarded by some fantastic cinematography that makes this film (shot for roughly $300,000) seem like a much more lavish production than it is, as well as an atypical but interesting and intelligent story. By intertwining themes of vampirism with the more spiritual side of the film, Gunn creates a film like no other, the scene where Hess approaches a church standing out as particularly poignant in this regard.
Anybody who was impressed with Jones' turn in Night Of The Living Dead will find him equally impressive in his turn here, with Clark his equal throughout the film. The two have a great on-screen chemistry together and Gunn's film takes full advantage of that. There's believability to the more passionate moments that they share on camera that goes a long way towards making certain scenes far more intense than they would be otherwise, and both performers deserve top marks for their efforts here. James Hinton's cinematography is unusually artsy for a black seventies film and it gives the film a feeling of dread but is at the same time often very pretty, bending the line between reality and hallucination rather deftly. It's all set to an eerie score which mixes up tribal chants (reflecting Hess' obsession with his work) and electronic bits (giving the film a modern slant) and utilizing some interesting stings any time the film approaches vampiric horror. This makes for an interesting contrast in both themes and visuals that makes Ganja & Hess a worthy cinematic oddity that deserves to be rediscovered after such a convoluted history. And it has. The film has, in recent years (thanks in no small part to the All Day Entertainment DVD issues), found a sizeable following in both art film and cult film circles. A wholly original film and one that only starts to really make sense after a few viewings, Ganja & Hess is strange, fascinating, horrifying and beautiful all at the same time and definitely one well worth seeing.
Ganja & Hess arrives on Blu-ray in a very good in 1.66.1 widescreen by way of the AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer. The film is as grainy looking as it ever has been but the higher bit rate and higher resolution ensures that we see a lot more detail than was possible on the previous DVD releases. Texture is also much improved as are black levels and color reproduction. This is still a low budget picture that looks a bit rough around the edges but the high definition restoration seen on this disc is a big improvement. Gunn's use of color in the film is very important and those trippy, dreamy sequences involving different hues are brought to life beautifully here. Some mild print damage shows up now and again and some shots definitely look softer than others (stemming back to the original photography no doubt) but overall fans of the film should be quite pleased with the presentation.
The only audio option for the feature is an English language LPCM 2.0 Mono Master Audio track. The quality of the audio is as solid as it is likely going to get, offering up clear dialogue with only a few noticeable instances of very minor hiss present anywhere in the mix. Voices come through clearly overtop of the strange soundtrack while effects are balanced properly in the mix. This isn't a particularly fancy track, but the movie doesn't need it to be and it suits the film quite well. No subtitles or alternate language options are provided.
The biggest and best of the extra features comes in the form of the full length audio commentary that brings together composer Sam Waymon, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton and producer Chris Schultz. There's a wealth of information divulged by all participants on this track, and some of the stories are quite interesting and lend a new appreciation for the film (especially those in regards to the serious budgetary restraints that the filmmakers faced). This commentary isn't new, it was recorded for the aforementioned All Day Entertainment DVD, the first one, but it's inclusion here is important as it really is a fantastic document of the film's history that helps to not only extrapolate on the themes and history of the movie but to put it into its proper socio-political context as well.
Also carried over from the All Day Entertainment, the second release, is the twenty-nine minute featurette The Blood Of The Thing which is a collection of interviews with DVD producer David Kalet, producer Chris Schultz and editor Victor Kanefsky.
For the BD-Rom equipped, there's also a PDF of a lengthy 42-page article by Tim Lucas and Dave Walker that details the bizarre history of the film and the various cuts that were made to it. It makes for interesting reading - Lucas (of Video Watchdog fame) and Walker (of Bad Azz Mofo fame) know their stuff and having this as a companion piece to the commentary and the film itself is a nice treat. Bill Gunn's original screen play is also included in PDF format, and makes for a pretty interesting inclusion. Aside from that we get a nice collection of some very strange looking promotional stills and artwork, as well as a gallery of production stills.
The only drawback is that there isn't any of the alternate footage from the re-cut version here, or any comparison of the two versions save for what's mentioned in the Lucas/Walker piece. It would have been nice to see the chopped version of the film (released under the alternate titles of Blood Couple, Black Vampire and Black Evil on VHS) included as well, especially considering that it does contain some footage not present in the admittedly far superior Bill Gunn cut.
This rather obscure and oft times overlooked blaxploitation/horror/art movie hybrid comes to Blu-ray in bold style thanks to the efforts of Kino Video with some help from the Museum Of Modern Art and The Film Foundation. Ganja & Hess is an interesting and unusual horror film that should please fans of both horror and blaxploitation genres and this Blu-ray presentation does the film justice. It's not always an easy film to wrap your head around but it has stood the test of time well as a superb example of creative independent filmmaking and it comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.