Archive for Blaxploitation

A “Suburban Grindhouse Memories” Classic: GANJA AND HESS (1973)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2012, 70s Horror, Art Movies, Blaxploitation, Classic Columns, Cult Movies, DVD Review, Experimental Films, Indie Horror, Nick Cato Reviews, Suburban Grindhouse Memories with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2012 by knifefighter

(Editor’s Note: Because of circumstances beyond his control, Nick Cato wasn’t able to get me his latest SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES column this week. So I figured, instead of having a hole in our calendar, I’d just reprint one of his best old columns from 2010. Keep in mind, with the next installment, Nick will have written 47 columns of SGM for us here at Cinemaknifefight.com. This one was Number 4. A true classic that deserves a bigger audience. Mr. Cato will be back with a brand new column next time.)

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SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES No. 4:  Bill Gunn: a True Filmmaking Genius.
By Nick Cato

In the early 1970s, “blaxploitation” cinema was all the rage on the grindhouse circuit (be it urban OR suburban).  When director Bill Gunn was approached to make a film in the vein of BLACULA, he took the money and did something far more serious.  Instead of trying to make an exploitative quickie, Gunn went for the gusto and delivered an artistic deep-thinker that (to this day) has many who see it believing it’s a vampire film.  It isn’t.  In fact, Gunn went all-out as he wrote, directed, and stars in this surreal, nightmare of a film that requires at least three to four viewings before even half of what it has to say will hit you.

Since I was only five years old when GANJA & HESS was originally released, it was a treat to (finally) see this for the first time at a revival theater last month (April, 2010).  This was the first time that I knew–halfway through a screening–that I’d have to see what I was watching again (and as soon as possible) just to keep my train of thought (this turned out to be one of the most challenging films I’ve reviewed yet).  So I purchased a DVD the next day and watched it three more times.

The film follows Dr. Hess Green (played by legendary NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD star, Duane Jones), his new assistant George (Bill Gunn), and his assistant’s wife, Ganja (the lovely Marlene Clark).  Despite what some reviewers have said (I’m assuming they saw one of the several, heavily-edited/re-titled versions), Hess DOES NOT become addicted to blood AFTER being stabbed by his assistant; the very beginning of the film scrolls these titles (over some magnificently eerie music): “Doctor Hess Green … Doctor of Anthropology, Doctor of Geology … While studying the ancient Black civilization of Myrthia … was stabbed by a stranger three times … one for God the Father, one for the Son … and one for the Holy Ghost … stabbed with a dagger, diseased from that ancient culture whereupon he became addicted and could not die … nor could he be killed.”  So, for the record, Hess is already addicted to blood when his suicidal assistant George moves in; Hess is a wealthy anthropologist living in a tremendous mansion (African American stereotypes don’t exist in this film, instantly banishing a “blaxploitation’ label from it).  He even manages to stop George’s first attempt at suicide; George (apparently aggravated at this) eventually attacks Hess with the ceremonial dagger Hess had brought back from Africa.  Hess survives, but George ends up shooting himself in Hess’ bathroom.  When Hess discovers George’s body, we see him fall to his knees and lap his blood (the main scene I’m assuming has caused many to label this a vampire film).

George’s wife Ganja shows up at the Hess mansion to wait for her husband (Hess has him stored in a freezer in the basement).  And this is where GANJA & HESS truly becomes strange.  After discovering her husband in the freezer and assuming Hess killed him, she ends up believing Hess’ testimony of George’s suicide and she helps Hess to bury him.

Ganja & Hess fall in love, get married, and Hess eventually makes her a part of the “Myrthia” tribe, bringing its ‘blood curse’ upon her (one edited version, released in the 80s on VHS as BLOOD COUPLE, gave the film a standard (and false) vampire-film packaging).  Things get even stranger when Hess brings a man home for Ganja to feed on (she ends up having an affair with him first) and Hess begins to doubt his Christian roots when he finally begins to feel guilt after feeding from a young mother–guilt that nearly leads him to a nervous breakdown.

One of several misleading re-titles for Ganja & Hess: BLOOD COUPLE

It should be pointed out here that while everything I’ve just described is happening, the incredibly spooky score by Sam Waymon, along with some dazzling cinematography (I swear Dario Argento was inspired by much of this) helps to give GANJA & HESS a constant aura of surreal darkness that won’t leave your mind anytime soon.  One commentary track I listened to on the “GANJA & HESS: THE COMPLETE EDITION” DVD (Image Entertainment) mentioned that the opening sequence is told from 12 points of view (after re-watching it, I’m betting this is why so many are turned off to the film early on—it’s truly unlike anything you’ve seen before).  And this is just one thing that makes GANJA & HESS such a unique–and challenging–film.

GANJA & HESS is a film about religious identification and one man’s realization that he has strayed from the faith of his upbringing.  After making peace with God at a church service, he attempts to bring Ganja with him.  The film’s final moments feature Hess’ death and Ganja contemplating her own life: to me it’s apparent she likes what Hess has turned her into by smiling when she visualizes the dead man Hess had brought home for her running naked out of their pool.  And being a sequel-less film, we’re left to consider and debate if this is so.

Again, this is NOT a vampire film.  It’s an intense, unusual study of a millionaire who, despite having all there is to have in this world, is haunted by what lies beyond this life.  And yet despite this underlying theme (as well as a church service scene that goes on for WAY too long), I don’t think it was Gunn’s intention to make an evangelical film (and if it was, I’d like to know what church–in 1973– approved of extended shots of full-frontal male and female nudity, pagan blood drinking, and an artistic-look at suicide).

Watch GANJA & HESS.  Then watch it again, even if you don’t like it the first time.  Despite a few slow stretches, the film has plenty to offer to those who take the time to contemplate and dig out its treasures.

I can’t remember the last time a film has caused so much conversation between my friends and me.  GANJA & HESS, despite its all-black cast, is NOT a blaxploitation film.  It is a genuine hybrid of horror and art house filmmaking that stands alone.  It can not (and will not) ever be duplicated.

This is a true gem from Bill Gunn, and a gem I’ll surely be revisiting again and again.

© Copyright 2010 by Nick Cato

(Editor’s Note # 2 – This movie had a LOT of alternate titles during its (several) runs on the grindhouse circuit. They include: BLACK EVIL, BLACK VAMPIRE, BLOOD COUPLE, DOUBLE POSSESSION, VAMPIRES OF HARLEM and BLACKOUT: THE MOMENT OF TERROR. Confusing enough for you?)

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Bill’s Bizarre Bijou – BLACK EYE (1974)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2012, Action Movies, Bill's Bizarre Bijou, Blaxploitation, Crime Films, Detectives, Hammer Films, William Carl Articles with tags , , , , , , on February 2, 2012 by knifefighter

Bill’s Bizarre Bijou

By William D. Carl

This Week’s Feature Presentation:

BLACK EYE (1974)

Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk-till-dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable—then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes!

Fred Williamson was a famous football star, playing for both the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs.  He was also one of the first black action heroes, a muscular, lithe, handsome presence onscreen and off.  He was a hit with the ladies, but he didn’t degrade them in his pictures.  Nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ in his gridiron days, he could fist fight with the best of them, and even better, the cat could act.   The Hammer was nobody’s whipping boy.  Instead, he built a long career by playing smart guys, detectives and cowboys and gangsters with real soul.  Williamson was first noticed in the TV show JULIA, co-starring with the lovely Diahann Carroll.  This was followed by a string of classic blaxploitation films, including HAMMER (1972), BLACK CAESAR (1974), HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), THAT MAN BOLT (1973), and THREE THE HARD WAY (1974), where he shared billing with two other hot African Americans, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly.  A textbook classic of its kind, THREE THE HARD WAY is a wild ride, but it’s been seen by everyone and is readily available.  You all know I would find something else to discuss here, right?  You bet your sweet…Shut your mouth!

BLACK EYE (1974) is like a Sam Spade plot gone horribly left of center.  In it, Williamson plays Shepherd Stone (natch), a down-on-his-luck private detective with little money in his pocket and an office in the back of a local pub.  He’s been thrown off the force, see, because he kept beating up pushers.  His beautiful girlfriend who lives downstairs (played by the luscious Teresa Graves—a regular on LAUGH IN, she later starred in the TV drama GET CHRISTIE LOVE and the movie OLD DRACULA-1975), is a bisexual who’s started dating an older white woman who owns a modeling agency, played by the great Rosemary Forsyth (SHENANDOAH-1965, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?-1969  and 2001’s GHOSTS OF MARS).  After interrupting the girls in flagrante, he shamefully returns to his run-down apartment.  But first, he hears a noise in the flat of his neighbor, a hooker who has several side businesses going.  When he investigates, he finds her dead, and an Aryan/Nordic type of man attacks him with a gold-tipped walking stick,  the top of which is sculpted into a dog’s head.  The blond man gets away, and our hero calls the cops, who promptly ask him to help them on this case.  You know, since he’s already involved and all.

Shepherd Stone is also asked to look into the disappearance of a young girl by her father, played by Richard Anderson (FORBIDDEN PLANET-1956 and he was Oscar Goldman on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN).  These two cases lead Stone to a sordid porno studio, sordid parties of the very rich, sordid broken-down carnivals, and the local church where the girl was last seen.  The church is run by a slimy preacher who may or may not be running a cult, but is certainly running some kind of scam.  Meanwhile, everyone wants the gold dog cane that the blond killer had in the hooker’s apartment.  Once owned by a famous silent film star (BLACK EYE opens with cool silent black and white footage of this actor, making me wonder if I was watching THE ARTIST (2011) again), this cane has been used to smuggle pure heroin into the country.  But by whom?  And who’s willing to kill for it?  The crooked preacher?  The porno producer?  The old gay man who collects movie memorabilia?  Soon, bodies are piling up everywhere Stone turns, the cane gets stolen twice, and everyone beats up everyone in several nifty bare knuckle brawls.  Complete the picture with a decent, bouncy car chase through a bodega slum, lots of sexual innuendo (“You’re a woman.”  “I’m a whole lotta woman!”), a mass baptism scene complete with a hundred hippie Jesus freaks, and a few good twists to the plot by the end.

Fred "The Hammer" Williamson in BLACK EYE.

BLACK EYE (he’s black and a private eye, get it?) was directed by Jack Arnold.  Yes, that Jack Arnold – the director of such classics as THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), and TARANTULA (1955).  Arnold’s career went south after the 1950s, and he was relegated to directing television shows like PETER GUNN, RAWHIDE, and (say it ain’t so) GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.  In the 1970s, he directed several blaxploitation features, including BLACK EYE.  It’s a long strange journey, but he still keeps the pacing fast, the dialogue snappy, and the people beautiful, baby.

Our feature was written by Mark Haggard (director of THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL-1976) and Jim Martin.  It’s not Shakespeare, or even Hammett, but it’s a fun little flick that plays a little dirty while still maintaining a PG rating.  If the plot seems overcomplicated, that’s because it is.  I’m still not sure how one woman fits into the whole bizarre plot, but it doesn’t take away any enjoyment from the movie.  In fact, the whole convoluted thing goes down easy with the popcorn and beer.  Dashiell Hammett himself once claimed he never knew who killed one character in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941).

And this isn’t a writer’s picture, or even a director’s.  This one belongs to the walking charisma that is Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.  With those hangdog eyes, those long sideburns, and that just-eaten-the-canary grin, he is a hero for the time.  He doesn’t use a lot of slang, and he only fights when he must (or when he catches a dope pusher in an arcade), and he’s entirely on the side of the cops, so he doesn’t really fit into the blaxploitation hero paradigm of the early 70s.  He isn’t a pimp or a crook or a gangster.  He’s just a regular Joe, fighting the man to get an honest day’s pay and fighting a predatory lesbian for his woman.  In fact, the whole matter-of-fact handling of the bisexual and lesbian characters in the movie is very evenly handled, surprisingly advanced for its time.  BLACK EYE doesn’t judge.  It’s just the facts, ma’am.  But The Hammer rises above it all and makes it much more enjoyable than it ever should be.  Williamson’s still acting.  In fact, he has four movies scheduled to open next year, including a remake of the brutal 1982 movie, FIGHTING BACKLong may the King reign!

BLACK EYE is available in a nice print from Warner Archive on DVD.

I give BLACK EYE three sordid porn studios out of four.

© Copyright 2012 by William D. Carl

Fred Williamson hangs out with some hippies in BLACK EYE