Screening: Saturday, November 24, Rich Theatre
To wrap up our series of American Indies from MoMA, Culture Shock is throwing a post-Thanksgiving double-header with cult classic Ganja and Hess (1973) playing at 7:00 p.m. and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) playing at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are 2 for 1 and you can purchase them here.
By Matt Smith, Guest Blogger
Ganja & Hess (1973), Bill Gunn’s utterly unique, confounding and lyrical art house horror, is a true American cult film. It was originally funded in an effort to cash in on the Blaxploitation craze, namely the success of Blacula, but the production company had no idea what to do with it. After its successful premiere at Cannes (where it was named as one of the ten best American films of the decade—perhaps a bit presumptuous so early on), the film was cut into a Sexploitation flick and marketed under at least six different titles: Black Vampire, Black Evil, Blood Couple, Double Possession, Vampires of Harlem, and my personal favorite, Blackout: The Moment of Terror. At this point the film was lost and available only in a severely edited form for decades. The restored version, available thanks to a miracle of archival research and restoration technology, is an experience worth having for any serious cineaste.
Dr. Hess Green (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones in his only other lead role) who has been studying the mysterious culture of Myrthi, is murdered one evening by his assistant George (writer/director Bill Gunn) with a ceremonial dagger taken as an artifact during one of their archeological visits. In a depressive state, George commits suicide, and Hess rises from the dead and takes advantage of his friend’s corpse to feed. Sometime after George’s suicide, his wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for him and falls in love with Hess, eventually begging him to turn her into a vampire as well.
This plot itself, however, is not where the film’s interests lie. Arriving at the intersections of addiction, sexual desire and spiritual decay, Ganja & Hess treads similar waters to George Romero’s Martin (1976), Larry Fessenden’s Habit (1995) and Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), reworking the tropes of the vampire sub-genre of horror (and largely ignoring the Dracula mythos) for modern day believability. The desire for blood is the same as an addiction to alcohol or heroine or sex. But unlike other contemporary formulations of vampirism, a key component to Ganja & Hess is its commitment to portraying Hess Green’s convictions as a Christian and the tie that vampirism has with ancient pre-Christian cultural rituals. Hess is torn between the sacred nature of blood in both cases— its life-giving flow and its spiritually affirming shedding by Christ. The struggle over Hess Green’s soul is the tether keeping us attached even during the film’s most elliptical moments.
And while the vampire film has always been about the souls (or lack thereof) of its monsters and their prey, the struggle between good and evil has rarely been treated as one so unspectacular as it is here. By making Hess’s vampirism a common addiction, the film leaves open the possibility of the full repentance of his sins. His spiritual decay due to his vampirism is a clear parallel to the decay of society, which the film hints at in other oblique ways. Hess is a victim of his condition as much as anyone else, though Ganja presents a real problem once Hess decides he must take his own life.
What are we to make of this woman, who forsook her husband and fell in love with Hess, deciding to be with him in his eternal un-death even after she discovered her husband’s head in the freezer? Now a vampire, and having created her own progeny, Ganja is left alone in the world, out there among us. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. The implications of this creature’s existence, however, are wide open. While some viewers will no doubt find the final moments of Ganja & Hess a frustrating experience, the eyes of evil loosed upon the world without the spiritual guidepost of Christian existence that Hess Green had—this stays with us nonetheless. There is no God, only the death of society and of the spirit.
[Matt Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Film and Media Studies at Emory University. He writes about international art and horror cinemas and maintains thesplitscreen.wordpress.com, a blog which features essays on all types of films as well as reviews of current releases.]
David Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, pushed his fillmmaking ever more towards the obscure logic, imagination, and dark acknowledgment of human performance which would become his trademark. Partially due to its visceral black and white aesthetic and partly because of the way its surrealism and absurdity bends toward dark comedy, Eraserhead has become a cult classic. Like all of Lynch’s films, Eraserhead seems uniquely rooted in its historical moment yet has proved capable of casting its particular, deeply strange spell for audiences across time. For a teaser, check out the trailer below as well as the interview with David Lynch about the making of Eraserhead.