Ganja & Hess (1973)

R | 78, 83 or 110 mins | Horror | 1973

Director:

Bill Gunn

Writer:

Bill Gunn

Producer:

Chiz Schultz

Cinematographer:

James E. Hinton

Production Designer:

Tom John

Production Company:

Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, Inc.
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HISTORY

The working title of this film was Blood . According to a 10 Apr 1973 DV article, Blood was dropped as the title after an Italian-made film, which had an English-language title Blood , was released in 1972. As noted in various sources, including commentary on the viewed 2006 DVD version of the film, the title was derived from slang for marijuana and hash, respectively. Some reviews and other contemporary sources list the film’s title as Ganja and Hess , not Ganja & Hess , as it appears in the credits of the viewed print. Although onscreen credits include a 1973 copyright statement, the film was not registered for copyright at the time of its release. Bill Gunn’s 1972 screenplay for the film was registered for copyright on 3 Nov 1987, under number PAu-1-024-845. Gunn’s onscreen credit reads “directed and written by.”
       The film opens with a series of title cards introducing “Dr. Hess Green” as a doctor of anthropology and geology who, while studying the “ancient Black civilization of Myrthia,” was “stabbed by a stranger three times” with a “diseased” dagger that rendered him addicted and immortal. Three additional title cards labeled "Part I: Victim"; "Part II: Survivor"; and "Part III: Letting Go" appear in the film. Brief voice-over narration spoken by Sam Waymon as his character “Luther” is heard after the opening credits. Although the narration and opening title cards imply that Hess has already been infected when the story starts, he is stabbed by “Meda” several sequences into the film. Prior to this stabbing, Hess is ... More Less

The working title of this film was Blood . According to a 10 Apr 1973 DV article, Blood was dropped as the title after an Italian-made film, which had an English-language title Blood , was released in 1972. As noted in various sources, including commentary on the viewed 2006 DVD version of the film, the title was derived from slang for marijuana and hash, respectively. Some reviews and other contemporary sources list the film’s title as Ganja and Hess , not Ganja & Hess , as it appears in the credits of the viewed print. Although onscreen credits include a 1973 copyright statement, the film was not registered for copyright at the time of its release. Bill Gunn’s 1972 screenplay for the film was registered for copyright on 3 Nov 1987, under number PAu-1-024-845. Gunn’s onscreen credit reads “directed and written by.”
       The film opens with a series of title cards introducing “Dr. Hess Green” as a doctor of anthropology and geology who, while studying the “ancient Black civilization of Myrthia,” was “stabbed by a stranger three times” with a “diseased” dagger that rendered him addicted and immortal. Three additional title cards labeled "Part I: Victim"; "Part II: Survivor"; and "Part III: Letting Go" appear in the film. Brief voice-over narration spoken by Sam Waymon as his character “Luther” is heard after the opening credits. Although the narration and opening title cards imply that Hess has already been infected when the story starts, he is stabbed by “Meda” several sequences into the film. Prior to this stabbing, Hess is not seen drinking or procuring blood. The film does not clairfy whether the mentally unstable Meda is the one who infects Hess, or if Meda’s assault is a second, coincidental attack. Reviewers commented on the plot’s obtuseness and offered different interpretations of the opening action.
       Ganja & Hess was the first feature release directed by playwright-actor-novelist-screenwriter Gunn. Although Gunn (1930—1989) had directed the feature Stop in 1970, that film was not released commercially for many years, according to the DVD commentary and other modern sources. The 2006 DVD of Ganja & Hess was dedicated to the memory of the film's cameraman, James E. Hinton (1936—2006), “Hollywood’s first black cinematographer.” Ganja & Hess was Hinton’s first theatrical release. A photography teacher at Purchase College in New York, Hinton worked primarily on documentaries over the course of his career.
       At the time of the film’s production, Duane Jones, who made his acting debut as the star of the 1968 release Night of the Living Dead (See Entry), was a professor of literature at New York State University. Richard Harrow, who played Ganja and Hess’s ill-fated dinner guest, made his acting debut in the film. Like Jones, Harrow, whose real name was Richard Harris according to the DVD commentary, was a teacher. Waymon, whose onscreen music credit reads “music composed and performed by,” also made his screen acting debut in the picture. As he stated in the DVD commentary, Waymon had once been a preacher similar to his character “Luther” and improvised the sermons depicted in the picture. Waymon’s distinctive music for Ganja & Hess included two songs, but their titles have not been determined. As noted in the DVD commentary, extras in Ganja & Hess included prominent novelist William Gaddis and Ulric Haynes, Jr., then U.S. ambassador to Algeria, and Haynes’s wife Yolande, all of whom were friends of the filmmakers.
       According to news items and the DVD commentary, the film was budgeted at $300,000 and was shot in the greater New York area. New York City locations included 9th and Broadway and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Hess’s mansion was located in Croton-on-Hudson, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan, and other scenes were shot in Nyack, where Gunn lived, and Ossising, near Croton-on-Hudson. According to producer Chiz Schultz in the DVD commentary, Teamsters threatened to burn down the mansion unless they were hired on the picture but changed their minds when they learned that most of the cast and crew were African American. The film was shot in Super 16mm, according Hinton in the DVD commentary, and blown up to 35mm. Hinton also noted that while shooting one of the scenes in the field, a solar eclipse occurred and was included in the film.
       Much of the film’s dialogue was improvised, according to the DVD commentary. Gunn’s screenplay, as noted in the commentary, originally was written with a more conventional, chronological structure, but that during the editing process, the story became less linear. Although executive producers Quentin Kelly and Jack Jordan had hired Gunn to make a black vampire film similar to the successful 1972 release Blacula (see above entry), Gunn ultimately rejected most of the conventions of the blaxploitation and horror genres. Ganja and Hess do not have fangs, for example, or other characteristics associated with film vampires. In the DVD commentary, Schultz claimed that Gunn was influenced by the work of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and aspired to make Ganja & Hess the first African-American art-house film.
       Despite the art-house nature of the film, Kelly and Jordan arranged a Hollywood-style premiere in a commercial venue in New York. For the most part, the film was poorly reviewed and did not do well financially in its initial New York run. The reviewer for Players magazine, however, applauded the picture as a “provocative metaphor which attends the cosmic sensibility of black life, its spirituality, that hidden layer of potency often inscrutable to the ‘plantation bosses.’”
       In May 1973, Gunn screened the picture during Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival and reportedly received a standing ovation. Despite this accolade, Kelly and Jordan shelved the film after its New York run, then released a heavily re-edited version in early 1975. The re-release, which according to the DVD commentary, restored Gunn’s linear structure and included dialogue and scenes cut from the original, played under various titles, including Blood Couple , Double Possession and Black Vampire . A Jul 1974 Box item described the re-release as a “suspense film dealing with the black mass of exorcism.”
       After viewing the re-release, whose running time was approximately thirty minutes shorter than the original, Gunn, Shultz and editor Victor Kanefsky demanded that their names be removed from the credits, according to a Nov 1974 Var article and the DVD commentary. The Var article stated that Kelly was replacing Gunn’s, Shultz’s and Kanefsky’s names with names of some “company investors.” CineFantastique , however, credited editor Fima Novikov as editor, creative supervisor and director of the re-release. Novikov is mentioned in the DVD commentary as the editor of the re-release.
       Although Gunn’s original version of Ganja & Hess did not receive additional theatrical screenings, it was shown periodically at the Museum of Modern Art and earned cult status as a ground-breaking black film. In 1998, the first DVD version of the film, taken from a 35mm print of Gunn’s original cut housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was released. As noted onscreen, the viewed 2006 DVD version was “created using archival 35mm positives provided by the filmmakers and the Museum of Modern Art. Some footage [not included in the 1998 DVD] was only available on a 16mm print provided by Pearl Bowser and Third World Newsreel . . .” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
29 Jul 1974.
---
Box Office
3 Mar 1975.
---
CineFantastique
Spring 1976.
---
Daily Variety
10 Apr 1973.
---
Daily Variety
17 Apr 1973
p. 2, 5.
New York Times
21 Apr 1973
p. 19.
Players
Nov 1973
p. 12, 16.
Variety
18 Apr 1973
p. 30.
Variety
17 Apr 1974.
---
Variety
20 Nov 1974
p. 3, 22.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Film by Bill Gunn
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Exec prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
Wrt
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Lighting dir
Asst cam
Cam asst
Key grip
Best boy
Still photog
ART DIRECTOR
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst ed
Film ed,1975 version
SET DECORATOR
Prop master
COSTUMES
Cost des
MUSIC
Mus comp and performed by
Mus dir
African instrumentals played by
SOUND
Spec audio eff
Sd ed
.
Sd
The Sound Shop, Inc.
Asst sd
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles des
MAKEUP
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod supv
Prod mgr
Scr supv
Prod secy
Asst to the prod
Asst to the dir
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
STAND INS
Stuntman
Stuntman
Stuntman
SOURCES
SONGS
"Bungelii Work Song," African folk song, used by permission of Folkways Records, Inc., recorded by Musee de L'homme
"March Blues," words and music by Sam Waymon, sung by Mabel King
other songs composed and sung by Sam Waymon.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
Ganja and Hess
Double Possession
Blood Couple
Black Vampire
Blood
Release Date:
1973
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 20 April 1973
Production Date:
circa early March 1970 in New York
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
78, 83 or 110
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

After touring the Brooklyn Museum of Art with director Jack Sargent, Hess Green, a wealthy black doctor of geology and anthropology, meets George Meda, his new assistant. Hess and the marijuana-smoking Meda then ride to Hess’s country mansion outside New York in a Rolls Royce driven by Luther Williams, a black minister who also works as Hess’s chauffeur and stableman. That night during dinner, Meda tells Hess about his recent experiences in Amsterdam, while Hess discusses the African tribe he and Meda are studying, the Myrthians, and their distinctive hunger for blood. Later, after a disturbing dream featuring a masked Jack at the museum and an African tribal priestess crossing an open field, Hess wakes and wanders outside. There, he discovers a drunk Meda sitting in a tree, a noose dangling from a nearby branch. After accusing Hess of poisoning his drink, Meda confesses that he is a paranoid neurotic. Hess coaxes Meda out of the tree, and once inside, Meda talks about his suicidal tendencies and his feeling that he is both a victim and a murderer. A few hours later, Meda attacks Hess in his bedroom, stabbing him three times with an ancient Myrthian dagger infected with a blood curse. Tormented by his murderous deed, Meda then types a rambling philosophical missive about man’s conflicted nature. After taking a cleansing bath and brushing his teeth, Meda shoots himself with a gun. Hess, who has been unharmed by the dagger, rushes into the bathroom and begins lapping up the blood that is pouring from the dead Meda’s chest. Although disturbed by his actions, Hess cannot control his ... +


After touring the Brooklyn Museum of Art with director Jack Sargent, Hess Green, a wealthy black doctor of geology and anthropology, meets George Meda, his new assistant. Hess and the marijuana-smoking Meda then ride to Hess’s country mansion outside New York in a Rolls Royce driven by Luther Williams, a black minister who also works as Hess’s chauffeur and stableman. That night during dinner, Meda tells Hess about his recent experiences in Amsterdam, while Hess discusses the African tribe he and Meda are studying, the Myrthians, and their distinctive hunger for blood. Later, after a disturbing dream featuring a masked Jack at the museum and an African tribal priestess crossing an open field, Hess wakes and wanders outside. There, he discovers a drunk Meda sitting in a tree, a noose dangling from a nearby branch. After accusing Hess of poisoning his drink, Meda confesses that he is a paranoid neurotic. Hess coaxes Meda out of the tree, and once inside, Meda talks about his suicidal tendencies and his feeling that he is both a victim and a murderer. A few hours later, Meda attacks Hess in his bedroom, stabbing him three times with an ancient Myrthian dagger infected with a blood curse. Tormented by his murderous deed, Meda then types a rambling philosophical missive about man’s conflicted nature. After taking a cleansing bath and brushing his teeth, Meda shoots himself with a gun. Hess, who has been unharmed by the dagger, rushes into the bathroom and begins lapping up the blood that is pouring from the dead Meda’s chest. Although disturbed by his actions, Hess cannot control his urges and steals some blood from a blood bank the next day. At an exclusive garden party soon after, Hess chats in French with his sophisticated young son and secretly downs a glass of blood. Later, Hess visits a seedy bar and is approached by a prostitute, who takes him to her apartment for sex. There, as the prostitute is seducing the somber Hess, her pimp rushes in, and he and Hess fight. After Hess kills the pimp, the terrified prostitute grabs a gun and shoots Hess, but the bullets have no effect and Hess mauls the prostitute, then drinks her blood. Haunted by his deeds and strange images of the African priestess, Hess vomits. Back at his mansion, Hess receives an angry phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja, who has just flown in from Amsterdam. When Ganja demands to know Meda’s whereabouts, Hess tells her that Meda has disappeared and invites her to his mansion. Hess and the elegant Ganja are immediately attracted to each other, and Ganja easily seduces her host that night. To satisfy his addiction, Hess drinks more of the stolen blood and the next day leaves Ganja alone in the house. Making herself at home with Hess’s butler Archie, Ganja goes down to Hess’s wine cellar and, to her horror, discovers Meda’s body inside a large freezer. In the city, Hess, meanwhile, is invited into a young mother’s apartment and, as her baby cries in its crib, kills her for her blood. That evening, a somber Ganja accuses Hess of murdering her husband, a charge Hess does not deny, and then reveals that as a child, she was unloved by her cold, demanding mother. Despite her discovery of Meda's body, Ganja marries Hess in a small wedding, conducted by Luther. In the moonlight, the newlyweds then dump Meda’s plastic-wrapped remains in a field near the mansion. After Hess declares cryptically to Ganja that he wants her to live forever, Ganja has a dream in which Hess bites her savagely. Ganja tells Hess about her dream the next day and, while standing in the field, Hess stabs his wife with the dagger three times, infecting her with the ancient germs. Wracked with an intense thirst, a feverish Ganja drinks the glass of blood that Hess offers. Ganja then seduces a young man whom Hess has invited for dinner and, while both are naked, attacks him for his blood. As Ganja and Hess are dumping the young man’s wrapped body in the field, Ganja notices that he is still alive, but Hess stops her from freeing the man from the plastic. Later, after Ganja complains about being perpetually cold, Hess quotes from the Bible and speaks about dying in the shadow of the cross. Hess then finds himself in Luther’s church as he is delivering a rousing sermon. Luther, who is aware of Hess’s condition, prays over him and sends him into a spiritual trance. Back at his mansion, Hess cries with joy at his salvation and dies enveloped in the shadow of a large cross. After an ambulance takes away her husband’s body, Ganja is startled to see the young dinner guest, fully resurrected, emerging from the swimming pool. As the naked young man runs toward her across the lawn, jumping over the bloody body of Archie, Ganja smiles. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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