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‘Ganja & Hess’ Blaxsploitation, sexuality, and women’s empowerment in the Black community

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Ganja & Hess is a 1973 Blaxploitation horror film with an indelible legacy in Black American cinema. The film was one of the more cerebral Blaxploitation films to debut during that time, and its distribution history only adds to its cult status and mystique. The plot meanders around themes of race, addiction, religion, and female empowerment, with African vampire lore serving as the backdrop. This beautiful indie film has become a cult classic among Black film lovers, and the film’s experimental nature is bolstered by brilliant performances from Marlene Clark and Duane Jones.

Writer and director William Gunn was also a novelist and playwright, which makes Ganja & Hess a vampire film unlike any other. At times the film does feel more like a stage play than your typical horror film. The themes presented in Ganja & Hess are well-trodden territory, especially in the Blaxploitation genre. But most Blaxploitation films were financed by and honestly made for white audiences as a way to confirm biases about Black culture.

While Black people enjoyed seeing themselves on screen, Black filmmakers of that era lamented how Blaxploitation films created more Black stereotypes and caricatures. Gunn attempted—and ultimately succeeded—to create a Black film devoid of harmful Black stereotypes.  Gunn wanted to bring more nuance to Black characters and show the richness and complexity of Black life, which is why there is so much opulence and decadence in Ganja & Hess. Gunn’s departure from Black caricatures is also evident in Hess (Duane Jones), who is the antithesis to other Blaxploitation archetypes seen at that time. You may know Duane Jones as Ben in another genre-defining film Night of the Living Dead. Jones’s performance as Hess should honestly be held in the same regard as his performance in Living Dead, as he brings the same charisma and intensity to the titular character Dr. Hess Green, a wealthy and educated archaeologist living on a lavish estate.

Hess and his assistant George Meda (William Gunn) are studying an ancient African nation that drank blood. George and Hess are interesting foils to each other when we dissect their Blackness through the lens of class and assimilation. George is an impolite, nervous, and unstable man, while Hess’ mannerisms signify his wealth, education, and conformity to polite (white) society.  George seems unwelcome and out of place in Hess’ tastefully decorated mansion. George’s crudeness, profanity, and inability to play his part as assistant/the help make Hess uncomfortable. When George attempts suicide on Hess’s property, Hess urges him to consider how it would affect him as “the only colored on the block.” Hess is hyper-aware that his Blackness puts him at odds with his white neighbors. His wealth and education cannot protect him, and he understands that being Black puts him in a precarious situation.

Later that night, George attacks Hess with an African dagger and then commits suicide. Hess survives the attack and then drinks George’s blood. This is where we begin to see Hess lose control. Vampirism in this film is presented as an allegory to addiction. Hess seems to be at odds with his newfound vampirism. The usually respectable and put-together man begins to behave erratically. Hess starts stealing blood from the hospital, only to discover that he needs to drink from the living in order to survive. Jones gives an emotional performance, and we can feel how painful this affliction feels for Hess.  He struggles with his addiction and need for live victims, but he ultimately succumbs to his bloodlust. In one chilling scene, we see Hess at his most sinister as he watches TV and gets dressed in a room with a sex worker’s lifeless body on the bed and her child crying in the crib beside her.

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Soon, George’s estranged wife Ganja comes looking for him. Gunn’s multifaceted female character can be seen as one of the many blueprints for Enduring Women characters developed during the height of the Blaxploitation era. Horror Scholar Robin R. Means Coleman defines Enduring Women as a variation of the Final Girl that must continue to endure societal horrors even after they defeat the monster. Final Girls are usually white, tend not to be overtly sexualized, and can live in peace after they have overcome the evil they faced. Black women do not have that luxury—on or off-screen. Because Black women are hypersexualized and will likely face misogynoir, police brutality, poverty, and high rates of maternal morbidity even after defeating otherworldly horrors, they are Enduring Women.

And Ganja endures a lot to make it to the end. Marlene Clark is effortlessly stunning, cool, and collected as Ganja, and she and Hess are attracted to each other immediately. Jones and Clark’s chemistry is hot, and embers of lust start to simmer the first time they share the screen. Their chemistry is so electric that, like Ganja, you begin to think, “George who?” 

The better question of “where is George?”  is soon answered when Ganja finds his corpse in the wine cellar. Ganja is outraged but recognizes she is probably better off with Hess and his wealth. The two wed quickly, and Ganja agrees to be turned into a vampire. Ganja’s transformation into a vampire is a confusing and uncomfortable experience. Hess tries to teach his new disciple how to survive and presents her with a lover to also feed on. Ganja endures all of this for the promise of a better life than she had with George, but she is still devastated when her lover passes and soon becomes harder to control.

Hess is overcome with grief and guilt over the monstrosities he has to inflict on other people in order to survive. He begins searching for a cure for his addiction. The church is an integral part of Black life, and like Hess, many Black people find comfort, guidance, and salvation within. After Hess visits with Reverend Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), he understands that he must accept Jesus as his savior and atone for his sins. In a beautifully eerie scene, we see Hess die in front of a giant cross, and it is unclear if he is writhing from the pain of hellfire or experiencing pleasurable relief from his guilt.

Though Hess tries to convince Ganja to face God’s judgment with him, she ultimately decides to live on as a vampire. She also chooses to dispose of Hess’s meddling butler and take full ownership of Hess’s sprawling mansion.  Vampirism is not an affliction for Ganja—it is now a source of her power.

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Unlike white, virginal, and do-gooder Final Girls, Enduring Women are flawed and sexually empowered to survive against all odds and may even find comfort in becoming the monster. In the film’s final scenes, we see her previously dead lover rise from the water naked and run toward her. Ganja looks directly into the camera with a coy smile, obviously pleased with her decision to live in comfort without either of her husbands. Ganja is an Enduring Woman not only because she endured the deaths of her husbands and a disorienting vampire transformation, but because she decided to live her life on her own terms and rid herself of the men that ultimately stood in her way.

Ganja & Hess’s more artistic take on vampires led to disappointing box office numbers for the producers. Although it was critically acclaimed and screened at the Critics’ Week at Cannes Film Festival, the producers withdrew the film from distribution and sold it to another company. It was then retitled Blood Couple, hoping to capitalize on a more straightforward Blaxploitation film. The producers wanted a “Black” version of white vampire films and did not appreciate the avant-garde masterpiece that is Ganja & Hess.

The original cut of Ganja & Hess—and the only version the filmmaker William Gunn acknowledged—was donated to the Museum of Modern Art, which cemented its status as a cult classic. This experimental vampire film seamlessly blends all of the elements that we expect from vampire lore—lust, power, fighting inner demons—and uses them to shape enigmatic yet alluring Black characters during an era in American cinema that produced far too many Black caricatures for white audiences. Ganja & Hess was truly ahead of its time and should not be overlooked.

Jenika McCrayer (she/her) is a writer and horror enthusiast based in Brooklyn, NY. Her adoration for the sociopolitical aspects of the genre inform her writing on gender, politics, and education.

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Revisiting the Incomprehensible Silent Night, Deadly Night Series: Which Is the Best, Which Is the Worst, and Are Any of Them Actually Good?

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Which means we need to bust out some relevant Christmas horror films to watch here. And it also means there will be many listicles that put Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 at the top of their rankings for Christmas horror films by default. But it got me thinking that maybe we need a bit more of a meditation on this series.

Have we really written them all off so quickly because one of them is the most meme-able? I like the first few films in the series as much as the next guy, but The Ricky Chapman Trilogy that kicks us off doesn’t go beyond the pale the way everything after does. 4 & 5 are Apocrypha to the Ricky Bible, but they introduce many weird, out-there concepts that make them enjoyable bad movies.

So today, I’ve taken the liberty of hitching up the man-eating reindeer to the sleigh to take a retrospective ride through the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise and find out…well, you read the title, you can do the math. Starting with…

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT

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The one that started it all and got a bunch of people in hot water. It’s funny to think that outrage culture has pretty steadily assaulted our eyes and ears with the dumbest of controversies since time immemorial. Still, it’s even funnier knowing this movie contributed to that outrage. But beyond the controversy, this film is actually…kind of good?

It’s the best shot of all the movies, so big props to Scream Factory for remastering it and restoring it to its fullest. It’s only a little meanspirited, which is good since it doesn’t get too heavy for its absurd concept. On top of that, the kills in the movie are exceptionally creative (antler impalings, Christmas light hangings, and sled decapitations, oh my!). My only problem is that Billy Chapman is no Ricky, he’s more serious and isn’t as much of a goofball.

I would say this ranked high up when I first started my rewatch but may go closer to the bottom of the list. Not for any technical fault of its own—just because it gets much funnier from here in…

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, PART 2

Do I even have to say the line to know it’s the first thing that went through your head as you read the title? GARBAGE DAY!

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Let anybody who told you Art the Clown is the best slasher villain to use a gun see this and watch them change their tune. Watching this is only enriched by not having seen the first movie, which makes it one of those sequels that is better than the first in the worst way possible. If you were unfortunate enough to watch both the first and second films in one sitting, like myself, you’d know that roughly half of the movie is flashbacks to Billy’s rampage. But that doesn’t stop it from being entertaining as all hell.

Ricky Chapman is an all-time great slasher villain and delivers some kills almost as good as the original. Eric Freeman may just be the best-worst actor of all time, which makes this movie one of the best-worst films of all time by proxy. Which makes the following film feel like a fall from grace, given its…

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!

A.K.A. “The one with Bill Moseley in it,” because that’s the most remarkable thing about it. He’s not even a killer Santa in this one, but I guess mixing the motifs of “killer with exposed brain pan” and “Santa Claus with murder tools” might muddy the aesthetic waters. The final entry for our boy Ricky is kind of a sad whimper to go out on because this movie’s pacing is painfully slow.

It squanders a very fun concept (psychic girl is hunted by an evil Santa Claus she keeps having visions of) in favor of watching a lobotomized Ricky taking a road trip to his murder victim and killing people off-camera on the way. Worse, it squanders Bill Moseley, who doesn’t get to act outside of lumbering with a slack jaw. It’s the cinematic equivalent of dragging your sled up the hill again: tedious, no momentum, and no fun as you wait for the next weird ass thrill ride in the franchise.

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SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4: THE INITIATION

And the next weird ass thrill ride in the franchise is here! Why should this even qualify when it looks and feels like Springtime in Los Angeles, and people had just forgotten to take down their Christmas decorations for months? Well, three reasons:

  1. Spontaneous combustions caused by witches.
  2. Monstrously massive bugs everywhere, designed by Screaming Mad George.
  3. Clint Howard as the resident crazy homeless guy who walks in and out of the movie.

While Ricky may be gone and its status as a Christmas movie is dubious, it’s a trip of a film with one particularly hellish sequence involving a lot of slime-covered giant insects. Some complain about its ham-fisted thematic notes of gender inequality, sex, and exploitation…but are you actually going into Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 expecting strong themes? Just enjoy this one for what it is, which is a lot of classic ick-inducing Brian Yuzna filmmaking. If you liked the weird, psychosexual nightmare that was Society, you’ll like this.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOYMAKER

I was going to do another A.K.A. joke here, but I realized that the twist of this movie is so weird that it outclasses even The Initiation and needs to be seen to be believed. Rewatching this, I had forgotten exactly what the deal was with our mystery killer in the film and was mouth agape when the movie jogged my memory.

The Toymaker gives some very gruesome deaths and puts the Yuletide feeling of the film at center stage with a plot about murderous toys (not Demonic Toys, we swear, please don’t sue us Charles Band!). In fact, I would argue that since the effects in this movie and the violent kills don’t feel like a rehash of Society, it’s actually a major improvement on what 4 had going on. While four is slower-paced as it tells a (somewhat) more tempered story, five is aware of how goofy the plot is, with faster and funnier editing and some truly hilariously bad performances.

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SILENT NIGHT (2012)

The final entry in the series is as plain jane of a slasher as they come but does manage to get the holiday aesthetics down pat, so even though it isn’t as wacky as the others, I’m including it in the ranking.

This film isn’t the one that reinvents the wheel or brings any fire to mankind (outside of the literal flamethrower murders depicted in it), but it is a very solid slasher. It has a cast of fun character actors, particularly Donal Logue and Malcolm McDowell, with our lead Jaime King as a no-nonsense detective hunting down our slasher. I just wish it was as madcap and off the walls as some of its predecessors were.

FINAL RANKINGS

Which is the best, which is the worst, and are there any good films in this series?

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I would argue that all of them (except for 3) are great horror flicks in their own rights, since not a single one of them (except for 3) is boring (3 is getting the worst spot, sorry if I’m being redundant, but it sucks).

If I had to choose a best one, it would probably be our 5th spot on the list as The Toymaker is a diamond in the horror rough that, while lacking the bad acting of Part 2, has a genuinely insane script and all the best special effects of the series. So, from best to worst:

  1. Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker
  2. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2
  3. Silent Night, Deadly Night
  4. Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation
  5. Silent Night (2012)
  6. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!

When you’ve got those cookies baking in the oven, the house smelling of pine tree, and the lights twinkling, let this list from nice to naughty help you make the right decisions on which campy horror movies to watch this holiday season.

From all of us here at Horror Press, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year everyone!

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In Memory of the Video Rental Store

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Cinemas are for those who know where they’re going. But the video store? The video store is for the wanderers who are still looking. Or, were still looking.

From a very young age, I, like many people, was in the clutches of a business nobody even knew was doomed to collapse yet. At least, nobody I knew knew, and certainly, you didn’t know. We were children, and children rarely know much about themselves, let alone the intricacies of a market on the brink of an unknowing death at the hands of an unknowable, unfeeling force. A force that would take all the whimsy and love out of picking a film and replacing it with scrolling and idly zoning out as you watched the screen.

I learned quickly to love the video store. I hadn’t yet grown to love the comic books that would line the boxes in my room, or developed the skills to play with others, but I did have a video store on my block. It was a downright frigid spot in the sweltering heat of the summer, and that was all it needed to be.

The fatal weakness the store preyed on was that my eyes and heart were still perfectly big in proportion to my positively diminutive brain. I was enticed by every expertly crafted cover, every famous face I acquainted myself with. I ended up carrying names and voices belonging to the friends and enemies and loves and heroes I’d never meet.

And the terrors I’d never experience first-hand.

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The eyes in paintings follow you sometimes, but the eyes on movie cases always follow you when you walk along the aisles. It’s the horror film cases that always seem to be watching you from between the shelves. Red eyes peering from the darkness. Monstrous eyes that seem particularly human and human eyes that call on the particularly deranged. The only lit spot on a face leering in shadow with wide eyes, wide maniacal stares and bloody hands and bloody weapons, bloody everything–

So scary that it would leave me rambling. And I’m a habitual rambler, always nervous, so you can only imagine how scared I was, even as a child, when my parents were there to assure me it’d be fine.

I can’t wash out how those images evoked a primal disgust and curiosity in me. I remember that the Saw movie covers did it to me quite a bit with their various severed limbs and torn-out teeth hanging by wires; the Texas Chainsaw remake had me standing in shock when I passed it in the store, the face of Thomas Hewitt staring back with void sunken features. Sepia-toned filth that leeched off the poster’s art and into my brain to leave stains so strong I can remember them as clear as day. Growing recognition that would turn into admiration.

And I kept running into these faces, even when I wasn’t in that video store. A man in the neighborhood who sold movies out of the trunk of his car frequented the same block as my grandmother’s apartment. He lured me over to browse the selection once, and there it was. My father took my hand and led me away, but that first glance at the stitched face would terrorize me for most of my childhood.

Cover after cover through flea markets, electronics retailers, and bargain bins in big box stores. Everywhere, that damned face. Good old Charles Lee Ray, Chucky. Killer dolls, which I only got glimpses of, were infinitely more terrifying than the films themselves. God forbid I saw one of the full-sized replica Chucky dolls in a store and froze up to have an asthma attack.

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When I got older, eventually, I did what every idiot in a horror film does. I took the proverbial steps into the darkened basement to find out what was making that noise. I had to find out what I had been seeing glimpses of from the corner of my eye.

Far and away from the first video store that stole my heart, we had a Blockbuster in the town we moved to next. Twelve-year-old me snuck a copy of “Dawn of the Dead” in with some of the films we had rented, covering that pale, bloodstained half-face with a box of old candy off the shelf near the register, taking advantage of the fact that my parents were still browsing while I made my pick. The young cashier, whose face has melted into memory soup all these years later, still had one distinct feature on their face I could see: a smile. It could have been them being nice as usual, but part of me likes to think that they knew what I was doing and just wanted to give a little push to rebel.

I watched it a few days later in my room, nervously dancing around the fact we’d have to return it soon. And though I had to cover my eyes most of the time, and the volume had to be turned down low so that my parents couldn’t hear the carnage from the next room over, I made it through. And I wanted more now.

Now that I’m grown, I wish we had met earlier, horror; I wish I had gotten to know how fun the fear could be. How silly some of these things were. The joys of camp and goriness. The way you could put the laughter in slaughter and the sense of fun in fear. But that was the trajectory I had to be on, to feel equal parts “I’m scared, I want to go home” and “I’m scared, I need to know more.” I’m just glad that I caught those eyes watching between the shelves when I did.

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