I wouldn’t call Ganja and Hess scary, exactly, but it might just be one of the most unnerving horror films I’ve seen. A low-budget exercise from the blaxploitation era, Ganja has a raggedness that’s occasionally unprofessional, but more often than not it’s a purposeful attempt to give the narrative a nightmarishly surreal quality. At its most effective, this is an experimental overlapping of dialogue, image, voiceover and music that makes you feel as if you’re suffering from an awful fever dream.
That’s essentially what archeologist Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead) suffers from after being stabbed with an ancient dagger by his assistant (director Bill Gunn). Cursed with a thirst for blood, Hess tries to restrain himself. But when the demons take over – and it feels that way, what with the chanting that arises on the soundtrack – he leaves his palatial suburban estate to feed on urban undesirables (there’s a ghastly, matter-of-fact murder of a prostitute and her pimp). As for the Ganja of the title, that’s the name of his assistant’s wife (Marlene Clark), whom he seduces and curses in an act of passion/revenge.
I’ll confess I deduced more of these plot details from the explanatory titles at the start of the film than the movie itself, so scattered and impressionistic is its narrative. One of the many conventional things the movie doesn’t bother with is a realistic sense of time, which only furthers the dreamlike quality. Add other oddly unsettling elements – the ceremonial chime that goes off during a sex scene, a church baptism that gives the dousing of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood a run for its money – and you have a horror film that’s often as subliminally troubling as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ganja and Hess taps into something I don’t fully understand, yet it has just enough elements I’m familiar with – especially its frequent references to Christianity – to deeply, deeply disturb me.