Ganja & Hess: Experimental Black Horror

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By Izzy Aghahowa

Bill Gunn’s sophomore film Ganja & Hess (1973) is a strange, experimental, hallucinogenic horror filled with dread and discomfort as it follows characters down their individual paths of temptation, murder and despair. Dr Hess Green (Duane Jones) is a wealthy black anthropologist who is doing research on the Myrthians, an ancient African nation of blood drinkers. Through a series of unfortunate events, Green is faced with a journey of depravity when a curse is put upon him, meeting an unlikely accomplice, Ganja (Marlene Clark), in the process. This interesting blaxploitation film has three black main characters, which was incredibly rare in 1973. Its experimental take on the horror genre and on vampiric folklore is fascinating.

The film’s lack of music and spellbinding sequences leave you feeling very uneasy and wary of what is going to happen next. The presence of sensual black bodies in the film adds a real sense of importance to Ganja and Hess as not many films gave black men and especially black women physical autonomy or power. Ganja’s personality is compelling, as a black woman with sexual agency, commanding the scenes she’s in and with a good amount of presence in the story. It earned its place as a seminal blaxploitation film and as one of the most challenging and distinctive pieces of vampire cinema. The commentary on class and social dynamics in the film should also be acknowledged as Green’s wealth is a big part of his characterisation. His aura of pompousness and elitism is notable as it helps him mask normalcy to those around him: someone like him would be above the complications of a regular, lower-class black man. Its abrasive editing and weird, unorthodox progression of events leave a real feeling of anxiety and awkwardness, the awkwardness being increased by Green’s uncanny behaviour throughout the film. It is a must-watch black horror film with great performances from the main actors.

Further viewing:

Blade II (2002) directed by Guillermo Del Toro, available on Box Of Broadcasts

Queen Of The Damned (2002) directed by Michael Rymer, available on Box Of Broadcasts

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