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All Day Entertainment presents
Ganja and Hess: The Complete Edition (1973)

"I had a strange dream last night. I dreamed you murdered me."
- Ganja Meda (Marlene Clark)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 30, 2006

Stars: Duane Jones, Marlene Clark, Bill Gunn
Other Stars: Sam Waymon, Leonard Jackson, Mabel King
Director: Bill Gunn

MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, sexuality, language, drug use, suicice, gore, violence)
Run Time: 01h:52m:15s
Release Date: October 03, 2006
UPC: 014381351125
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- B+BC- A

DVD Review

In the early 1970s, after the success of Blacula, Kelly-Jordan Enterprises retained writer Bill Gunn to write and direct a black vampire film for them. Uninterested in such a project, Gunn nevertheless accepted the task in order to use the framework to make an arthouse picture on a subject that did interest him: the nature and course of addiction. But when he turned in something that was not considered commercial, despite critical acclaim at Cannes, it was taken from Gunn, re-edited and marketed variously as a horror film, sexploitation or blaxploitation, under a variety of titles, most notably Blood Couple. One of the earliest DVDs from All Day Entertainment was a reconstruction of Gunn's original cut, but it was still missing about three minutes of running time. For the first time ever on home video, the original Ganja and Hess has now been released by All Day in a new and improved edition.

Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) is an anthropologist interested in the blood cult of the ancient Myrthians. His new assistant, George Meda (Gunn himself) is invited to dinner at Hess' estate, but he proves himself to be totally unstable, stabbing the doctor with a Myrthian dagger and then killing himself. But Hess isn't killed by the dagger, which inflicts upon him an ancient curse that leaves him immortal but addicted to blood. George's wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for him, but Hess tells her that he has disappeared. Before long, a passion develops between them, but when Hess decides to share his immortality and addiction with her, unexpected results ensue.

Audiences expecting horror or action must have been sorely disappointed; with the proper expectations this is a thoughtful exploration of obsession and addiction, with vampirism (the word "vampire" is never actually uttered during the running time) standing in as a metaphor for drug addiction. Hess' journey begins as a victim, evolving into a survival instinct, and finally developing into an acceptance and a way of life. But that way of life has its drawbacks, heavy with ennui and decadence. Hess' mansion grows darker as the picture continues, its graceful art and music replaced by bare walls and eventually dead leaves blowing through the edifice, mirroring the decay of its owner's life.

Jones is best known for his starring role in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), though he plays a very different part here. His Hess Green is aristocratic, cultured and intelligent, and the portrayal of a black man as an intellectual being chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce must have surely been shocking at the time of the original release. He underplays the lead severely, making him something of a cipher, but it's quite an appropriate depiction. While it takes a long time for Marlene Clark to make an appearance, when she does so she makes herself known with a vengeance. Lively and sassy, her Ganja is difficult but sensitive, and she quickly takes over the household. Her vivaciousness and mean streak make a fine contrast to Hess' subdued qualities. She's quite stunning to boot, and the brevity of her film career is regrettable. Gunn's George Meda is way off-kilter, a condition often depicted partly out of frame.

In this restoration, the complex set of flashbacks and flashforwards are put back into their intended order. Much of the exposition found only in the Blood Couple version is eliminated, with the information instead conveyed in the lyrics of several songs heard in the opening reel. This is an unusual and startling device, easily missed by the casual viewer, who might then be hopelessly perplexed by the balance of the picture. The omission of subtitles is greatly felt during these songs, since I felt I wasn't getting every line and may well have missed some critical information. But it is indeed a valuable service that disc producer David Kalat has performed in this restoration, finally complete. It is ironic, in a good sense, that Gunn's intended version has now totally supplanted the abortive studio re-edits of the Blood Couple version and its other cinematic perversions.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: When dealing with this kind of restoration, certain allowances have to be made. The most recently restored three minutes (primarily consisting of George Meda's contemplative poem after he believes he has murdered Hess) apparently exist only in 16mm form, and the quality drops substantially during that segment. Otherwise, the quality is acceptable, given the state of the film elements. The picture is shot in rather soft focus much of the time, though when it is not so soft there's plenty of detail. Color is generally vivid and grain structure is rendered reasonably well. Edge enhancement and other processing are quite limited and do not visibly detract from the image. Consider the grade to be on the curve.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono English track is rather subdued and on occasion somewhat muddy. Dialogue is frequently difficult to make out, but as David Kalat notes, some of that seems to be an intentional distortion in the Ganja and Hess version, which is not found on the studio versions of the picture. Hiss and noise are fairly mild for a low-budget picture. The gospel and blues music is rather tinny and thin, lacking in any significant presence or depth. It's sufficient, but nothing to get excited about.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Screenplay
Production Notes
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) producer Chiz Schultz, Marlene Clark, director of photography James Hinton, composer/actor Sam Wayron and editor Victor Kanefsky; 2) disc producer David Kalat
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:10m:41s

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: While All Day's original release of this movie was generous in the extras department, the ante is upped significantly this time around. The excellent and chatty commentary from the original is brought over, with the addition of editor Victor Kanefsky on the restored footage. Unfortunately, his memory is exceedingly vague as to whether this footage was really intended to be part of Gunn's final cut, though he eventually decides it was. David Kalat is one of my favorite commentators, and he adds comments on a short (17m:43s) collection of scenes from the picture, mostly from the beginning, as to which he explains the complex structure and fills in numerous facets that might be missed. The Blood of the Thing (29m:36s) is a new documentary collection of interviews and discussions at what appears to be a festival screening of the restoration by many of the principals (though Clark is sadly missing). There's plenty of good information here, very little of which is duplicated in the commentary. A photo gallery contains numerous behind-the-scenes shots that will be of interest.

The DVD-ROM section is also fascinating, and far more than the usual miscellany found on many DVDs. Although the Blood Couple footage is not present (apparently at the request of the filmmakers), the original script that Gunn convinced the studios he was really filming, and which forms the core of the re-edit, is provided here and it makes for fascinating reading. Anyone who is puzzled by the movie itself will find most questions answered here as well. Finally, the DVD-ROM includes the classic article from Video Watchdog that led to a new appreciation of Ganja and Hess and is in no small part responsible for Kalat embarking on this important restoration.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

A seldom-seen arty and frequently difficult examination of vampirism as part of the culture of addiction, finally and painstakingly restored to its full length. The source materials are perforce dodgy at times, but there are many valuable extras to help the viewer's appreciation.

 


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