Ganja and Hess: The critics of the 50-year-old vampire movie masterpiece were wrong

Clarke’s role as Ganja goes to Weston, the film’s strongest element. “In its autonomy [Clark] this is one of the main things that sets this film apart from its peers at the time. Let’s say in the era of blaxploitation, black women don’t represent themselves the best. Their roles can be quite stifling, but her performance and character are given so much richness. He’s such a lively figure, and that’s very rare.”

Watching Ganja & Hess is like listening to a professionally conducted orchestra. Gunn draws on the unique talents of each member of the ensemble from arthouse, horror, blaxploitation and beyond to create a unique sensibility that is heart-stoppingly beautiful. From the moment Ganja and Hess marry, juxtaposing their union alongside symbols of Christianity and African spirituality, to the scene where Hess lovingly curses her with the same vampiric affliction that transformed her, every frame radiates meaning and is carefully composed, like a baroque. oil painting. Amidst the haze of 16mm cinema, the black skin shimmers slightly and the crimson blood is unnaturally vivid. It’s sexy, disturbing, and deeply moving, and when you watch it, it seems to seep into your bloodstream, subtly passing through you, leaving an indelible mark on you of all the beauty and despair Gunn sees in the world.

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From rapture to mockery

The film became the only American film to be selected for Critics’ Week at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and was reportedly met with rapturous reception. While genuine enthusiasm is often hard to gauge in a place like Cannes, where standing ovations are at their best, Forster says there’s no denying that “Gunn was—as with many black artists in the mid-century, like Richard Wright, Chester Himes, or even James Baldwin for certain to an extent—is more recognizable to French audiences than to predominantly white American audiences. [the story of its reception] Maybe a bit over the top in Cannes. But now there are French scholars and critics writing in French journals, celebrating the film or Gunn.

Undoubtedly, the film was mistreated when it returned to the United States. It premiered at New York’s Playboy Theater and was panned by the critical establishment. Bad reviews led to poor returns, and Kelly-Jordan Enterprises sought to recoup what they could, selling the rights to grindhouse company Heritage Pictures, who released a new version, significantly trimmed down while including some additional footage, and renamed it Blood Couple. It was later credited with a series of titles, including Black Evil, Black Vampire, Blackout: The Moment of Terror, Double Possession, and Vampires of Harlem. Gunn wrote a damning indictment of his treatment in a now-famous open letter to The New York Times — the paper that described his film as “effectively artistic.” Titled “Being a Black Artist,” it’s almost as impressive a masterpiece as the film itself.

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It begins: “THERE ARE times when the white critic needs to sit down and listen. If he can’t listen and learn, he shouldn’t be in the business of black creativity.” He goes on to point out how little attention the critics paid to their criticisms and botch major plot points. He points out that none of them mentioned Cannes and were proud of their American counterpart’s foreign recognition, but he pays particular attention to the fact that Marlene Clark, “one of the most beautiful women and actresses I’ve ever known, was referred to as ‘brown-skinned.’ (New York Post). This kind of disrespect could not have been expressed in 110 minutes. It took at least a good 250 years.”

Gunn’s name was removed from Blood Couple and other butchered iterations of the film. Only one print of Gunn’s original Ganja & Hess version survives; which was donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With Gunn’s approval, it was screened there until its later restoration. In 2018, Kino Lorber’s distribution company, The Museum, and the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation collaborated to restore and remaster it in HD quality from a 35mm negative, making it widely available as a triumph of one of the great African-American artists. In the following years, it continued to be shown in-flight and made available on several streaming platforms.

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