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The story of Ganja & Hess is just as compelling a tale as the film itself. Written and directed by Bill Gunn, and released in New York on 20 April, 1973, the black vampire movie has lost none of its power over the past 50 years. It artfully depicts a wealthy anthropologist Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones), who is stabbed by his assistant George (Gunn) with an ancient African ceremonial dagger before George kills himself. The dagger turns Hess into a vampire, and further complications ensue when George's widow Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes to Hess' home looking for her husband, and the two fall hopelessly in love.
The film defies easy classification with its hallucinatory visuals, rich metaphors for addiction, raw sexuality and lyrical dialogue that offers a wholly unique treatise on African-American identity. For the film critic and programmer Kelli Weston, who recently co-programmed the In Dreams are Monsters season at London's British Film Institute, which screened Ganja & Hess, "the story has a quite classic structure for a horror film" and is founded on "the core premise of horror cinema, that what is repressed must always return". "But Ganja & Hess is enlivened by these black characters and the tension between spirituality, addiction and the predatory nature of empire," she adds. "Hess faces a curse from another place that he's sort of tied to – there's a rupture between black Americans and Africa, but a sense of feeling always bound or even haunted by it."
Watching Ganja & Hess is like listening to an expertly conducted orchestra. Gunn pulls from the distinct talents of each member of his ensemble and across arthouse, horror, blaxploitation and beyond to create a unique sensibility that is heart-stoppingly gorgeous. From the moment when Ganja and Hess marry, their union juxtaposed with symbols of Christianity and African spirituality, to the scene when Hess lovingly curses her with the same vampiric affliction that has transformed him, each frame radiates with meaning and is carefully composed like a Baroque oil painting. Amid the haziness of the 16mm cinematography, black skin lightly shimmers and crimson blood is preternaturally vivid. It's sexy, confounding and deeply moving, and watching it, it seems to enter your bloodstream, moving gently through you and leaving you indelibly marked by all the beauty and despair Gunn sees in the world.— Leila Latif, BBC
Sponsored by Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS)
Sun October 29, 2:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
United States of America; 1973; in English, French; 110 min
Director: Bill Gunn, Writer: Bill Gunn, Cast: Marlene Clark, Duane Jones, Bill Gunn, Sam Waymon, Leonard Jackson