Did you see that news article about the new roller coaster rule in Japan? As a safety precaution against the spread of coronavirus, the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park asked riders to refrain from shouting out loud. They suggested this alternative: Please scream inside of your heart. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw the words repeatedly, mostly in memes and jokes. A few folks quipped it was the perfect distillation of 2020, especially in the US. Compared to other countries, our government officials (from republicans to democrats) have given up on thoughtful coronavirus strategies. There is no national response. Just fascist threats and finger pointing and hysterical lies. “It is what it is,” Trump said when Chris Wallace asked about the US death count (over 225k as of this writing).
Please scream inside your heart. Lately, I’ve been fantasizing of doing just the opposite. Whenever I read about our horror show country, I dream about escaping to a secluded park, an open sea of green, and yelling until my body deflates. Eager to receive a taste of how sweet it could be, I’ll pantomime the action as I pace around my bedroom. Opening my mouth into a bottomless pit, letting the sound and volume take over, free from embarrassment or shame or consequences. Sometimes I imagine my noise inducing a gnarly nosebleed, the pain and frustration streaming out as syrupy red. Followed by the familiar whirlpool of anxiety and smutty pleasure: what if I shrieked and shrieked and shrieked, unable to stop?
If you look up images from Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (streaming on Kanopy and the Criterion Channel), you’ll eventually see the close-up stills of Marlene Clark screeching. Her eyes sewn tight. Mouth a ghoulishly profane O. Blood staining her teeth, lips, chin. Taken out of context, the image could be dismissed as pure camp: a winking parody of vampiric gore and shock. You need to encounter the scream in order to grasp the weirdness pulsing through the film. Her outburst blends into the soundtrack, a disorienting mixture of gospel, blues, tribal chants, and electronic freakouts created by Sam Wayon (Nina Simone’s brother; he also plays preacher Sam in the movie). When I watched the scene for the first time in July, the noise of her entered me, an existential fury overwhelming my sense of place and self.
Released in 1973, Ganja & Hess has a storied background that is indicative of Hollywood’s disposable and reductive treatment of Black artists. Hired by Kelly-Jordan Enterprises (a production company specializing in low-budget fare) to make a blaxploitation vampire film, Gunn ignored conventions and turned the genre inside out and sideways. Expecting the next Blacula, the producers were perplexed by the final cut. The film ran for three days in New York before it was removed from theaters. White critics did not know how to respond to a Black film uninterested in pandering to their stunted world view, so they panned it.
Kelly-Jordan sold Ganja & Hess to another production company, where it was drastically shaved down from 113 minutes to 79 minutes and re-released as Blood Couple. The re-edited version simplified the plot and emphasized the most explicit scenes from the film. Frustrated by the production’s interference, Gunn disowned this version and removed his name from the credits. Miraculously, an original cut of the movie was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, and in 2018, Kino Lorber presented a restored version of the film via screenings and a DVD/Blu-ray release.
It took me a few viewings to figure out the opaque story. Gunn’s approach is heady and bizarre, a sensual howl resembling poetry and electronic drone and psychedelic epiphanies. Voiceover narration provides existential asides from an array of characters. Novelistic chapter headings (i.e. Victim, Letting Go) break up the plot. Disjointed edits whirr together imagery culled from African spiritual traditions and Christianity. “He’d set up tensions and see how the tensions turned out. He’s an impressionist. He’s curious about the nature of the people or the place itself,” said collaborator and photographer Robert Polidori.
The story centers on Dr. Hess Green—played by the brooding Duane Jones who is best known for Night of the Living Dead, his only other leading role—a wealthy anthropologist/geologist preoccupied with his study of an ancient (and fictional) Black civilization famous for its blood rituals. One night Hess receives a visit from George Meda, his new assistant (played by a nervy Gunn). Meda, we soon learn, is caught in the throes of a psychotic breakdown. Using a cursed Myrthian ceremonial dagger, he stabs Hess three times (one for the father, the son and the holy ghost) in the middle of the night. Meda commits suicide immediately after the attack while Hess survives the stabbing, unharmed. Or rather, his harm has been transfigured. The dagger bestowed upon him the gift of immortality. And a curse: the debilitating hunger for blood.
To feed his habit, Hess robs medical clinics (targeting poor and working class Black neighborhoods in the city) with the aid of his chauffeur/part-time preacher Sam. When that isn’t enough, he begins slinking around dive bars and preying on prostitutes. His fragile routine is disturbed by the arrival of the sparklingly impolite Ganja Meda, who shows up at Hess’s palatial Westchester county estate in search of her missing ex-husband. Really, she reveals during a deliciously haughty brunch scene, she’s looking for money and a place to crash. (When they first meet, Ganja mistakes the casually dressed Hess for the servant.) The two fall into a torrid affair. Lonely and desperate in the glow of lust, Hess stabs a sleeping Ganja with the Myrthian dagger, passing on his gift and curse. They live out their days in a dreamy stupor, seducing lovers for sustenance, until Hess grows weary of their lifestyle. Despite their immortality and blood addiction, the word vampire is never uttered.
Ganja drives me wild. “Everyone I know is some kind of freak! Everybody’s into something. You're into horror movies, I can dig it,” she quips to Hess at one point. I saw images of her, Marlene-as-Ganja, before knowing anything about the movie. Ganja in a white nightgown, spread like a crumpled love note on a grassy field. Ganja’s nose buried in the velvety petals of a rose. And my favorite: Ganja during brunch, sucking cherry juice from her index finger, her long almond-shaped nails painted dark maroon.
Her presence injects a different energy into the film, one that stands in contrast to the leading men, who represent two sides on the same path to destruction: nihilistic creativity (Meda) and cold objectivity (Hess). Whereas Meda and Hess fully inhabit their tragic tropes, Ganja dwells in ambiguities, preferring to exist within the in-between of things. She isn’t a symbol to wrestle over or an anxious history to scrutinize. In other words, she’s allergic to any narrative that traps her in a predictable box. So what if she’s uncouth and antagonistic? She wears her jaggedness proudly, reveling in her ability to act as she wants when she wants, no matter who is around or in charge. She’s a breath of fresh air. No wonder Marlene relished the role. “You couldn’t wish for a better character,” the actress said in a Fangoria interview. “There are so many levels to her personality. She’s such a collection of contradictions. Playing that part was very rewarding.”
The contradictions. That’s why I love watching Ganja. She keeps me guessing, tapping into and expanding the usual vampire tropes. At first, she is horrified by her new state, running around Hess’s massive backyard, her face twisted by a strange mix of confusion and furious determination. If only she could rid herself of this awful hunger! The camera stays close as she shoves her face into blades of grass, frantically sipping from a hidden stream. No matter. The aching remains. Sobbing, she reluctantly drinks her first glass of blood. The scene resembles a bizarro communion, with Hess sitting by her side, as if a conflicted priest offering the blood of Christ. Eventually, though, the shock wears off. She grows accustomed to the trappings of Hess’s aristocratic life, quickly settling into her new role as his wife.
Recently, I’ve been fascinated by older vampire movies. Like a hallucinogenic drug, they offer their own thrilling escapes. Most of the films I’ve watched present a similar figure: an enigmatic woman lures unsuspecting individuals and/or couples to her fancy abode, an undertow of wild erotic abandon electrifying the space between them. When sexual climax finally arrives, it’s usually followed by a bloody puncture and a feeding frenzy. Diane LeFanu. Miriam Blaylock. Elizabeth Báthory. Their vampires are icy and decadent, obsessively single-minded in their pursuit. Sex and consumption clash in disorienting ways, unveiling tensions around desire, power, and control. Sometimes the sex scenes in these films feel too clinical and detached (especially The Hunger), and in those moments the predatory drive overwhelms the sensual possibilities. The coldness snaps me out of my own fantastical reveries, and I remember that vampires have always been a useful symbol of the insatiable appetites of another parasitic group—the exploitative wealthy class.
Gunn taps into similar anxieties. You could argue that Hess is cursed before the stabbing. Though sprawling and elegantly furnished, his mansion is also marked by a sense of decay. As Manthia Diawara and Phyllis Klotman note, “He lives a life completely separate from other black people, yet he represents a success in white bourgeois materialist terms, with an estate, cars, servants and clothes.” Despite these material privileges, Hess is adrift in a landscape hostile to his very being. His predicament recalls a quote from poet and archivist Harmony Holiday’s The Black Catatonic Scream:
Sun Ra rightfully defines hell as an inability to cry coinciding with a desire to cry. Forced stoicism is horror. Muteness is horror. A body that does not sound, a torment that cannot scream
Hess has been in hell. His vampirism literalized the torments buried deep within his soul, while also implicating his class position. Even after his transformation, he refuses to loosen the mask of stoicism. Except when he is with Ganja. She coaxes out a softer side of Hess, an urgent wanting we have not seen before. Their love scenes exude a knotted eroticism, where desire and power commingle in ways that challenge our puritanical depictions of pleasure. Attuned to hiccuping moans and sweaty skins, the camera creates a realm of gooey flesh, a sacred void removed from time, where nothing else exists beyond their probing touch. Within this paradise, they are able to etch and destroy and re-etch versions of themselves.
In another scene, Ganja seduces a handsome community worker whom Hess has invited to dinner. I always get distracted by the room’s decor: Boston ferns, taper candles, parlor palms, shag rugs, a toe ring. The lens of the camera seems to be smeared with Vaseline, giving the sequence a glazed, faraway look. The camera caresses their figures like a spellbound hand, lingering over thighs, feet bottoms, and spongy hair. Then we see the cuts: three bloody wounds on his back. And soon we hear the rising Bongili chants, which shift the twinkling narcotic soul into something else: primal, all-consuming.
We’ve circled back in time, to earlier shots of Ganja in the field. Among other meanings, media scholar Kim A. Reynolds writes that her scream telegraphs a “pain at leaving the mortal world (the world of “normalcy”) and transitioning into an ancient and unending universe.” Gunn frequently gestures to this unending universe via dissonant sound cues and chaotic editing. For instance, the screaming image fades back into the lovemaking scene, superimposed over a close-up of Ganja licking her guest’s bloody wounds. A spectral intrusion.
This still of Ganja spiraling between horror and ecstasy is pure contradiction. We’ve entered her psychic landscape, where all realities are felt at once, an excess of touch that stands in stark contrast to Hess’s remoteness. Ganja’s overlapping faces look like an abstract painting, a portrait of a woman diffusing, her character undone by earthly and cosmic frustrations. Instead of disappearing, her figure multiplies. Even when paused, the shambolic energy cannot be contained. It spreads over the borders, refusing to follow the rules of the frame. In Gunn’s world, reality is laced with dreams, the present clashes with echoes of the past, and cosmic is another word for unbounded consciousness. Life isn’t a singular trajectory, but a multivocal song.
I’ve been oddly comforted by Ganja & Hess these last few months. Its mix of nightmare and meditation captures my own fracturing state. One second I’m distracted by a mundane task—making the bed, handwashing masks, packing a bowl—and then the next second I am gone, consumed by a mercurial wormhole. I think of Ganja at the movie’s end, smirking as she gazes out the window. The world she knew is no longer, but she has already experienced annihilating heartache. She chooses endurance. Like her, I should listen to the desires of the scream.
Because life is endless. You are as nameless as a flower. You are the child of Venus. And her natural affection is lust. She will touch your belly with her tongue but you must not suffer in it, for, for love is all there is, and you are cannon fodder in its defense.
Wishing you moments of beauty,