Here’s something for a limited audience: Spike Lee, following his guerilla-style, filmed-in-three-weeks, released-in-41-theaters RED HOOK SUMMER, and his universally rejected OLDBOY remake, wanted to do a faithful remake of Bill Gunn’s 1974 arthouse bloodsucker movie GANJA AND HESS. Even with a lower budget than RED HOOK SUMMER, he knew no studio was gonna give him money for something like that, so he raised the money on Kickstarter.
It’s not something the average person is gonna need to see, but it’s weird that it took me so long to see this particular Official Spike Lee Joint (as the credits label it). I love Spike Lee, and I think even the ones I don’t like as much (BAMBOOZLED when it came out – haven’t rewatched it though and could well be wrong) are interesting and worth analyzing. DO THE RIGHT THING is still my favorite, and around the time it came out I caught a double feature of SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, and since then his only theatrical releases I’ve missed were SHE HATE ME (still haven’t seen it), RED HOOK SUMMER (I’m not sure it played here) and this one. But yes, I saw GIRL 6, I saw MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, I saw CHI-RAQ.
Still, I put this one off for several years because I kept meaning to watch GANJA & HESS again first. And that’s a bit of a challenge. I’d seen it twice before, didn’t really get it. Have you ever seen Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG? It’s a weird movie, pioneering in many ways, also very off-putting and hard for me to follow, and I initially saw it at an age where I didn’t know what to make of it at all. It took three viewings over a couple decades to get to the point where I felt semi-confident that I kind of liked it. Enough that I bought the soundtrack.
GANJA & HESS could be the quasi-horror version of that. Among the obvious points of interest: It’s one of the only movies besides NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that stars Duane Jones. If you call it a horror movie (since it’s about undead blood drinkers), it’s one of the earliest by a black director. BLACULA came out the year before, and though both center around a regal, upper class African vampire, it would be scientifically impossible to make two films more opposite. BLACULA is an attempt to tell an entertaining exploitation horror story with a black perspective. GANJA & HESS has zero interest in – you could even say it has hostility toward – entertainment, horror, or story. I’m not saying it does a bad job of those things. It’s an intentional choice that seems to accomplish the filmmaker’s goals. But it happens to not work for me still on viewing #3. (It’s currently on Shudder if you haven’t tried for yourself.)
For reasons I’ve been unable to ascertain, the production company Kelly/Jordan Enterprises recruited playwright/novelist/screenwriter Gunn to direct a movie about a black vampire. That wasn’t his thing, but they gave him creative control and he wanted to use it as a metaphor for addiction. The company had distributed the great samurai movie GOYOKIN, but I doubt they were looking for something like this in their catalog. Their only other credits on IMDb are the blaxploitation movie HONEYBABY, HONEYBABY (1974) and BLACK VAMPIRE (1988), which I’m almost positive is an accidental double listing for the rescored, re-edited and disowned-by-Gunn version of GANJA & HESS that they tried to market on video.
There are beautiful things about GANJA & HESS: that raw 16mm film look that I love, ‘70s clothes and locations, interesting music (by Sam Waymon, roommate of Gunn, and brother of Nina Simone), some good acting at times. Every once in a while it picks up a little, like the very brief scene where Hess starts a fire in the doctor’s office as a distraction to steal blood packets, and the music gets funky for a minute.
When Ganja (Marlene Clark) arrives it definitely gets more lively – she’s very demanding in a funny way while still being likable, and Jones as Hess doesn’t talk or emote very much, so her presence is appreciated. Still, I have a hard time following what anyone is talking about, like I got drugged at a party and have to just sit and watch long conversations while I can’t concentrate. Many scenes feel like acting exercises, improvised monologues that I didn’t hear the beginnings of, have no context for, and don’t follow what they’re getting at or how this connects to any scene before or after. I’m lost.
Lee’s remake is so close to the original that Gunn (who died in 1989) is credited as co-writer. It’s at least an improvement in that I could understand more of it, though I still don’t grasp what it’s saying about addiction, or religion, or anything else. Once again it’s the story of Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams, CHILDREN OF GOD, who when he was younger should’ve played DMC in a Run-DMC movie), a wealthy and respected anthropologist and African art collector who lives on an estate in Martha’s Vineyard. In this version he does talk quite a bit, usually in a very formal and scholarly sort of way.
At the beginning he gets an ancient dagger from the Ashanti Empire (as opposed to the original’s Myrthia). He has weird theories about the Ashanti being involved in “blood wars,” and when pressed by his museum colleague Lafayette (Elvis Nolasco, ROXANNE ROXANNE) he admits to believing “It’s less of a sacrilege to drink blood than to spill it.”
Lafayette comes to stay at Hess’s place, and is a poor house guest in that he climbs a tree at night, threatens to hang himself, and attacks Hess with the dagger. Hess seems to die, but wakes up in time to hear Lafayette shoot himself. And then Hess can’t help but go lick some of the blood off the floor. I like the title, but OH SHIT, I’M A VAMPIRE NOW would work too.
Now that he has an addiction (as he repeatedly describes it), he finds a couple different ways to get blood for himself, including the doctor’s office heist and some murders. Maybe the most effective scene in the movie is when he sits down next to a mother (Jeni Perillo, DA BRICK, two episodes of The Vampire Diaries) who’s sitting with her baby on a park bench, and starts up a conversation. At first it’s that familiar thing of a woman being more polite than she probly should be to a strange man she doesn’t owe a conversation to. I kind of thought she would get her fill and tell him to fuck off. But when he abruptly asks, “Are you going to ask me up?” she has a long, tortured hesitation. She knows she shouldn’t do it, but can’t hide that she’s very tempted, and finally does give in. She definitely has some kind of addiction of her own.
Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams, Coronation Street, Waterloo Road, The Knick) is Lafayette’s ex-wife who calls looking for him and sort of barges in on Hess’s life, at first rudely, but then they start to fall for each other. They eat dinner at a long table like Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale’s date in BATMAN, but it doesn’t play as a joke. Not long after Ganja discovers Lafayette’s body in the downstairs meat freezer she marries Hess anyway. Like Clark in the original, Abrahams is good at making Ganja snooty in kind of an endearing way. And Williams gives Hess an upright, robotic quality that first reads as upper class academic, then as not human.
There are a couple long sex scenes (both straight and lesbian) and a couple disturbing, gory parts, but I don’t think Kelly-Jordan Enterprises would’ve been any happier with this one than the original. Most of Lee’s films have some small experimental element in them (even DA 5 BLOODS has that part where they cut to a photo of Aretha Franklin like it’s a documentary) – but this is more alienating than usual for him. I believe that’s largely due to a lack of humor. One of the very few laughs involves a prostitute (Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire) who talks funny, for example ordering “Kalula, Black Russian” instead of Kahlua. He bites her to death and the reveal that she’s become a vampire is when she sits up and says, “Motherfucker you killted me!”
I guess maybe there’s some humor intended in the weird scene where he’s pretending a glass of blood is wine and a rich white lady he’s entertaining grabs it and tastes it. But the characters themselves don’t laugh and say funny things like so many of Lee’s do, even in movies about war or racial unrest. I wouldn’t say this is joyless, though. I love that the opening credits are centered around dancing.
Mostly I think this was an opportunity for Lee to have fun restaging scenes from a movie he loves. Cinematographer Daniel Patterson (She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series) gets to shoot lots of nice scenery on the property, lots of long shots letting the eclectic soundtrack play out. The score, weirdly, is by Bruce Hornsby – mostly simple piano. The Range could not be reached for comment. There are a couple cool Brazilian songs, the rest are said to be unsigned, unknown artists who submitted to him online. I don’t know how they count Siedah Garrett as an unknown, since she sang with Michael Jackson and stuff. She has a cameo here, too.
There’s not much updating. An exception is the scene about getting tested for (and lectured about) HIV. In a pretty ridiculous touch, the nurse (Joie Lee) walks into the waiting room with a pregnancy-style test wand in her hand, squints at it, and says, “You are… HIV/AIDS…” (really drawing out the suspense) “…negative.” Man, figure that shit out before you walk into the room! Unprofessional, in my opinion.
But I appreciate that Spike gets some of his weird names in there. He keeps “Dr. Hess Green,” but changes Ganja & George Meda to Ganja & Lafayette Hightower. Gunn just called the butler Archie, so obviously Spike changed him to “Seneschal Higginbottom.” Hess’s victim with the baby is named Sahara Paysinger, Joie’s character is Nurse Colquitt, and there’s a Nurse Royster (Lauren Macklin, “Gorgeous Woman #2 on an episode of Are We There Yet?). He’s so adverse to normal names. I love that about him.
Seneschal (who is no Alfred Pennyworth, let me tell you) is played by Academy Award winner Rami Malek. I’m not gonna claim there’s anything legitimate about this, but I tend to find him annoying. But this is not putting in fake teeth and pretending to be a rock god, it’s mostly serving food and driving a limo, so I hoped it would be fine. Nope. I’m not a fan of the accent, but like, there’s a scene where he’s carrying four bags of groceries for Ganja, and we need to know that she’s asking alot of him, so he carries them all bunched up and crooked and acts like he’s really struggling to carry them. So much drama. Come on dude, any civilian could carry those without that much of a problem, if any, and you’re supposed to be a fucking professional. You’re worse than Nurse Colquitt.
Like in GANJA & HESS, there are some pretty long scenes of church services that seem barely connected to the rest of the movie. But it’s some good gospel music – they cheat and have Raphael Saadiq and Jon Batiste in the band – so it’s some of the best scenes. And the interesting thing is that it’s the same small church from RED HOOK SUMMER. Not just the same filming location, but the same fictional congregation, Li’l Peace of Heaven, with Stephen Henderson (FENCES) as Deacon Yancy, Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Sister Hazel, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s character Deacon Zee now promoted to Bishop Zee, which makes sense because of… well, something upsetting that happened in the other movie.
That DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS takes place in the same world as RED HOOK SUMMER is important, because RED HOOK SUMMER had an appearance by Mookie, still an employee of Sal’s Pizzeria. So this means that DO THE RIGHT THING takes place in a world where vampires exist. And that’s the truth, Ruth.
Note: Looks like DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS must be out of print already on disc, but I watched it on Hulu