Home USA News Off the Radar: Black Vampire Myths and Addiction in Ganja and Hess

Off the Radar: Black Vampire Myths and Addiction in Ganja and Hess


Off the Radar is a weekly column that profiles overlooked films and is available to students for free through NYU’s streaming partnership. “Ganja & Hess” is available to stream on Kanopy.

Alia Lutra

“Ganja & Hess” is available to stream on Paramount+ and SHOWTIME.

“Ganja & Hess” (1973) opens with a somber, gospel-inspired opening song that cryptically references crucifixion and bloodlust. A set of intertitles introduces the main character, Dr. Hess Green (Dwayne Jones), and immediately tells about his dark and twisted fate. Director Bill Gunn’s surreal vampire thriller is a landmark of independent film noir and a unique work in the canon of horror fiction.

A lavish upstate mansion decorated with fine art and ancient relics from the African continent serves as the backdrop for Gunn’s exploration of the corrupt social elements plaguing his community. Greene, a wealthy anthropologist, studies an ancient African culture called the Myrtle, a civilization that feasted on human blood. One night, his mentally unstable research assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn), stabs him three times with the Mirthian Dagger and then takes his own life with a shotgun.

When Green wakes up, he is surprised not only to have survived, but also to find that he has a new need to drink blood. The picture of Green’s character shows the degradation of humanity in the face of addiction – a confident and wealthy intellectual who succumbs to the moral abyss. Green initially struggles to control his bloodlust; he preys only on those he considers the lowest strata of society—criminals, prostitutes, and pimps. However, as the story progresses, the forces of addiction prevail over his moral principles.

This psychosexual horror is enhanced by its raw and deeply disturbing score. This film’s soundtrack, composed by Sam Wayman, brother of famous singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, includes “Mixture of soul, tribal chants, gospel and trip, dissonant experimental cues” which gives the film a constant sense of otherworldly psychological stress. The edgy musical elements combined with the varied and frenetic cinematography complete a shocking cinematic experience.

Besides its innovative play on traditional tropes of the American school of horror films, Ganja and Hess is also important in its discussion of the politically seething Blaxploitation film movement that revolutionized black cinema in America in the 1970s. Blaxploitation featured black-centric films directed by Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks Sr.

The films associated with this movement were immediately controversial among blacks and in America in general due to their mixture of transgressive content and radical politics. The NAACP argued that the genre was responsible for perpetuating racial stereotypes and “common crimes” against black Americans.

Despite Blaxploitation’s negative reputation among general audiences, films such as Gunn’s Ganja and Hess have shown that the genre is an effective way of depicting the political reality of Black America in a stylized manner. Hann’s fear of addiction in the black community would indeed manifest itself a decade later in the deadly opioid epidemic. Fifty years later, the destructive drug culture still permeates all black culture.

Even Green embodies the disunity between different classes in black society. His apathy towards the urban underworld highlights the divisions and prejudices associated with black identity. Black exploitation films may not align with the ideology of mainstream political groups, but they play a key role in highlighting black issues and showcasing black talent on the screen.

Contact Mick Gow at [email protected]

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