Dueling Disclaimers: Ganja & Hess (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Ganja & Hess has always had a bit of a tricky time on home video, essentially because it's original film elements seem to be lost to the ages. But at the same time, there seems to be a core group of fans and preservationists that keep holding screenings and taking stabs at it. I mean, the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) is a credited producer right on the front cover of the latest version - how often do you see that? So I thought we'd have a look at the current blu-ray release from Kino, and the previous DVD release from All Day Entertainment, and see just what we've got here.
Night of the Living Dead's Duane Jones is Dr. Hess Green, a well-to-do west coast anthropologist and an honest-to-goodness modern day vampire. When George (writer/ director Bill Gunn) tries to kill himself on Hess's property, the good Doctor takes him into his home, befriends him and gives him a place to say. But you can only live in the same house with a vampire for so long, and it seems like a quiet little murder that will go undetected until, to Hess's surprise, George's ex-wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) shows up with questions, and she isn't easily put off. In fact, she moves right in.

Ganja & Hess is a very low budget film, not helped by the present state of its film elements. It looks very 70s, grainy and grimy, like so many 70s clunkers. But this one is actually very smartly written with some great scenes and surprisingly modern and naturalistic performances. The pacing is deliberately "arty," which is to say slow without the usual emphasis on exploitation and cheap thrills, and the metaphor for blood drinking as drug addiction is really obvious and heavy-handed. But the good outweighs the bland, and the film really comes to life when Ganja shows up and manages to be a more exciting character than the vampire. Overall, this is a very serious, earnest production, but there are some wickedly funny moments at time to keep you engaged. It's unconventional structure might throw you off at first, plot points are buried and it does steer into some heavy self-indulgence at times (particularly the climax, which will seriously test your patience). But there's just too much great stuff here not to keep returning to it.

By the way, this was remade not too long ago by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. That's very faithful and stylish, definitely worth a look. But the new Ganja isn't a patch on Marlene Clark. So the remake's a fine curiosity piece, but the original's the truly compelling film.
So Image and All Day released this film a couple of times, first in 1998 and again in 2000. But I never bit until their 2006 "Complete Edition," which not only boasted new extras, but an exclusive restoration with "3 minutes of footage missing from previous home video versions." Well, glad to have the footage back, but it's still a pretty damaged viewing experience, opening up with a disclaimer about the picture quality. In 2012, Kino gave the film its HD debut with a blu-ray edition restored and "mastered in HD from a 35mm negative." It's still a pretty damaged viewing experience, and this one opens with its own disclaimer.
2006 Image DVD on top; 2012 Kino blu-ray below.
So, both transfers are very grainy and beat up, but they are still pretty distinct. Clearly the same print was used for at least part of the transfer (Kino mentions using several 35 prints, whereas Image used a 16mm copy to fill gaps), as the same damage appears on the same frame (see the first set of shots). But even in those instances, we see the color timing is quite different (Kino going overly green while Image went reddish), the framing is different (Kino opens the film to 1.67:1, while Image crops it to a more traditionally theatrical ratio of 1.78:1), and oops! The Image DVD is interlaced. You know, I would have expected that on the initial 1998 DVD, but the 2006 version? That's disappointing. Anyway, I kind of prefer Image's coloring, but in all other respects, Kino really is a superior viewing experience. I'm glad to see this is more than just the 2006 transfer plopped onto a blu-ray disc; they've really done some serious restoration here.

Image gives us a somewhat hissy but respectable Dolby 2.0 mono track, and Kino essentially gives us the same but in LPCM. The strong musical moments manage to really grab you on both releases. None of the releases offer subs.
Now, extras are pretty interesting. All of the DVD releases from 1998 to Kino's blu feature a strong commentary, that's both fun and informative, by Marlene Clark, producer Chris Schultz, cinematographer James Hinton and composer Sam Waymon. If you consider yourself a fan of this film and haven't heard it yet, definitely check it out. Apart from some stills and a DVD-Rom article by Tim Lucas, that's all the old DVDs had. But the Complete Edition adds a new half hour documentary called The Blood Of the Thing, where Schultz takes you through the film's history. And all of that stuff, even the DVD-Rom bits, are on Kino's blu.

BUT, Kino actually took a step backwards. Because not only did they not produce any new features, but they dropped one other one that debuted on the Complete Edition. It's an 18 minute featurette called Ganja and Hess Reduced, and it's easy to see why Kino dropped it. It's David Kalat, the DVD producer, doing a partial audio commentary over the film. SO it makes sense Kino doesn't want All Day's guy on their disc, I guess - would Arrow have an interview with Cliff MacMillan on one of their discs? But it's a real loss, because Kalat is a bit of an expert on this film, and uses his time to basically fill in all of the obscure and interesting information about this film that the other extras left out. And this film is a treasure trove of obscure trivia and things you'd never pick up on, so this feature was really illuminating and interesting. And it's only on the 2006 DVD.
So this film's not for everybody, but it's really quite good. Apart from die-hard vampire lovers, this film might appeal more to drama fans than horror fans, but anybody who appreciates good movies will at least find something for them in here. And Kino (and MoMA) have given us the best, most definitive version of the film to date and that we're ever likely to see sans a time machine. So this is the version I'd recommend to anyone. But if you're a serious Ganja and Hess fan, you might want to double-dip for that last featurette. You know, get it used and treat it as a bonus disc.

5 comments:

  1. I'd love for someone to do up the BLOOD COUPLE variant from the negative -- it may not be the preferred cut, but it's an interesting watch all the same, and it's how I first saw the film. Plus there's plenty of exclusive footage swept up from the cutting room floor!

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    1. Interesting, I don't think I've ever seen the Blood Couple cut. Unless that's what was on video back in the VHS days. Because I did first see the film as a rental, but that was so long ago, I wouldn't remember any differences. I'll have to look out for that version.

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    2. As far as I know, all the VHS versions (Blood Couple, Black Vampire, Black Evil, etc.) were the same reworked theatrical edit. Very different than the original Ganja & Hess version -- the original All Day DVD of the original cut was one of the things that convinced me to get a player!

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  2. How about adding the UK Eureka BD to the soup?

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    1. Good point, I am curious about that version. It DOES include the Kalat featurette I was talking about (plus all the other extras), and apparently they use the same MoMA restoration for their transfer. So that actually sounds like the ideal way to go.

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