Blu-ray Review: Ganja & Hess – Kino Classics Remastered Edition
In 1973, Ganja and Hess from black American playwright, novelist, actor and film director Bill Gunn was chosen as one of ten best American films of the decade at the Cannes Film Festival. However, when the film opened later that year in New York to dismal box office, the film’s distributor, Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, removed the movie from theaters and sold it to Heritage, who then re-cut the film in an attempt to cash in on the blaxploitation craze of the moment (destroying the original negative in the process). After Fima Noveck re-cut the film with nearly half-an-hour of footage missing, redubbed the dialogue, and removed Sam Waymon’s musical score in favor of a bad synthesizer, it was re-released as Blood Couple. All Day Entertainment was the first to restore the original cut of the film for DVD several years ago (there were two versions, both now long out of print, the later restored with an additional three minutes). Now, Kino has brought Ganja & Hess to Blu-ray, newly restored from the original elements, thanks to a partnership with the Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation.
It should be noted that all of the background information discussed above was taken from the special features made available on Kino’s edition of Ganja & Hess. Now, with that out of the way, on to the actual film…
Ganja & Hess is a horror film, showcasing elements of vampirism, the occult, and the struggle between the African and Western (read: white) worlds. Undertones of Voodoo and Catholicism run throughout the story as well. An archeologist, Dr. Hess Green hires George (Bill Gunn) as his live-in research assistant. One day, George commits suicide, but not before stabbing Dr. Green with an ancient African dagger relic. When Dr. Green awakens, he finds his wounds have healed, and he has an unquenchable taste for human blood.
Before Long, Green figures out that the dagger used to stab him was contaminated with vampire germs, and because they’ve mixed with his own blood, he is now essentially a vampire (though he has no problem with sunlight).Eventually, Ganja (Marlene Clark) George’s no-nonsense wife turns up looking for her estranged husband, not out of concern, but because she’s broke. A pragmatic woman, Ganja moves in with Hess and eventually they fall in love and get married, even after she uncovers the doctor’s horrifying secret.
Far from the typical horror film, Ganja & Hess offers several deviations of the vampire myth. In one scene, Hess visits a Pentecostal church seeking salvation—a vampire embracing Christianity rather than being repulsed by it, is certainly different. Further the story goes on to address the fact that both Ganja and Hess are both sickened by their behavior; to have to kill and find new places to dispose of the bodies. All of this weighs on them heavily.
Ganja & Hess is very well acted. Though Jones’ Hess is fairly reserved, he leaves a strong impression as his character struggles to come to terms with his deeds as a vampire. Marlene Clark and Bill Gunn have a natural ease to their performances. Reportedly, as a director Bill Gunn gave his actors a lot of latitude and encouraged much improvisation. If that was the case, it resulted in strong, captivating characterizations.
Presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Kino’s 1080p Blu-ray transfer is a big improvement over prior releases. The film is as grainy as it ever was, but detail is much more defined. Color reproduction, black levels, and textures are also much improved. Gunn’s use of color is an important element in the film, and the trippy sequences look pretty good here. There is some mild print damage throughout, but given this films tough history, Kino has done a fine job on the transfer.
While the English language LPCM 2.0 Mono Master Audio track, won’t blow you away, it does a fine job with the material. Dialogue is clear, with only the occasional hiss here and there. Effects are balanced nicely throughout the mix. This is a pretty straightforward mix, but a film like this doesn’t need more.
No subtitles or alternate language options are provided.
The following special features are included:
The disc essentially ports over the main features from the 1998 DVD release, including an audio commentary and a retrospective “documentary.”
- Audio Commentary: Producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, composer/actor Sam Waymon, and cinematographer James Hinton sat down in 1998 to reminisce about the film. If you want to learn more about the film and its complicated history, this one is well worth a listen.
- The Blood of the Thing (SD, 29:41): Film historian David Kalat leads an interview-based documentary about Ganja & Hess, produced for the 1998 DVD release of the film. Interviewees include: DVD producer David Kalet, producer Chris Schultz and editor Victor Kanefsky.
- Gallery (1080p): A fantastic user-directed gallery with 32 stills.
- BD-Rom Content: Original screenplay by Bill Gunn and Video Watchdog article by David Walker and Tim Lucas. Only accessible on a computer with a BD-ROM drive.