Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus – review

Director: Spike Lee

Release date: 2015

Contains spoilers

This was a film that Spike Lee funded through kickstarter and is a remake of the classic 1973 vampire film Ganja and Hess. Now I have seen it suggested, on the heels of this remake, that Ganja and Hess was simply a blaxploitation movie. Not so. The original cut of Ganja and Hess was first shown at the Critics’ Week at the 1973 Cannes Festival, to a standing ovation. Unfortunately it was then butchered into a blaxploitation cut (it can be found in this form under the titles Blood Couple and Black Vampire on vhs).

In 2006 director Bill Gunn’s original vision was finally released onto DVD and it is a powerful piece of cinema in its own right and sits in my Top 100 vampire movies. Spike, therefore, has a lot to live up to with this remake.

in the church
After scenes of Lil Buck dancing in various urban locations we cut to a scene in the Heaven Baptist Church. Whilst the congregation listen intently to the sermon, responding to the points made by the preacher with zeal, Dr Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) sits at the back. His presence is one of reserve. We then see him go to the museum where a new Ashanti relic has been found and his new employee, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), waits for him. The relic is a dagger and sheath.

the ashanti blade
The discussion around the ancient Ashanti suggests that, before the Egyptian civilisation, the Ashanti civilisation had developed much science – including the ability to perform blood transfusions. This was developed due to a peculiar illness suffered by the Ashanti Queen, so voracious that people were entirely drained for her. The people themselves became anaemic. Eventually this led to blood wars with neighbouring nations. The discussion continues back at Greene’s Martha’s Vineyard home where Greene suggests that the Ashanti evolved a need for blood and Hightower responds by calling such a need a perversion.

lapping blood from the floor
Hightower has gone for a walk when Greene hears a wailing from outside, he finds Hightower drunk and in a tree with a rope round his neck. He talks the man down (the line suggesting that he is the only black resident in the area and the likely reaction of the police should a body be found is lifted from the original film) and the man admits to mood swings, mentioning his ex-wife as a bitch. When morning breaks Hightower attacks Greene with an axe, which seems somewhat more than a mood swing! They fight and in the melee Hightower stabs him in the chest with the Ashanti blade. Hightower goes to his room, cleans his teeth and then (off screen) shoots himself. As the gun report is heard, Greene awakens, the wound from the blade gone. He finds Hightower and starts lapping at the blood on the floor.

Hightower in the freezer
The film then follows Greene’s addiction to blood. In one scene he attacks a prostitute (Lucky Mays) and immediately vomits. He finds pills in her bag and goes to have himself tested for HIV – he is negative but the scene says something about the dangers of more conventional addictions. Hightower’s ex-wife, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), turns up and Ganja and Hess quickly begin an affair that leads to their marriage – despite the fact that he put Hightower’s body in the freezer, but then she does help him dispose of the body after she discovers it. He murders her on their wedding night (I assume with the Ashanti blade) in an attempt to be with her forever – making her like him.

Hess and Ganja
There has been a suggestion that this is not a vampire film but of course it is. Not only does Ganja accuse him of being a vampire (and it is not refuted) but it is a film about people who die, come back and crave blood. Indeed Hess makes a point early on about the Ashanti traditions speaking of the 'beginning of death', rather than an 'end of life', and Hess begins to feel that the condition denies them that journey (though the phrasing can be read two ways). They are colder than when alive and cannot be injured (he shoots himself without consequence and stabs her a couple of times after she turns to prove the point).

shadow of the cross
They can only be killed when the shadow of a cross falls across their heart (and that is a long drawn out process it would seem). This was not expanded on. In the first film it is the shadow of a symbol of good that proves their downfall, not just the Christian cross. This is just a cross and the mythology is specifically Christian, despite the (film’s) Ashanti being pre-Christian – though with the film title as it is, it would be.

Zaraah Abrahams as Ganja
Where it perhaps falls down is the performances. I enjoyed Stephen Tyrone Williams’ understated performance generally, there was a cool middle class and somewhat unassuming aspect to it, but cannot say the same for Zaraah Abrahams. Compared to the performance by Marlene Clark in the original it falls terribly flat, Clark’s Ganja was bitchy but we understood where this came from and sympathised with her whereas Abrahams just seems spoilt and without nuance; despite her soliloquy about her tough childhood. There was little in the way of believable chemistry between the two leads either, although that may not be Abrahams’ fault as the chemistry she displayed with Hess’ ex-girlfriend, Tangiers (Naté Bova), was palpable. The performance by Rami Malek as the butler, Seneschal, seemed out of place, almost inappropriately comedic.

Ganja's first fix
Motivations and logic are not as free flowing as the original. Hess loses any sympathy after he selects a desperate mother with a child as a victim. The fact that the child is called Najah – pronounced Nadja – is telling but Hess casually wishing the baby farewell as the mother lies dead and bloodied seemed unnecessarily callous (especially as he had taken his fix). Bringing me to my next point; the victims come back. When a middle class victim comes back, as Ganja and Hess attempt to bury her, Hess has Ganja hold her still and buried her anyway (telling Ganja that the victim is dead, as they are). When he returns to the mother she is holding Najah but the dialogue suggests she has killed the child to get her fix – Hess must have been aware that would happen and has left his lower class victims to return and spread the addiction in turn. The mechanics of how the victims are actually turned is not explicitly examined but it seems the act of killing them is key (rather than a transfer of bodily fluids), hence Hightower not returning - he killed himself.

lapping together
Hess refers to their condition as an addiction all the way through, though it spreads like a disease and Hess mentions symptoms, such as permanently feeling cold. When he has not fed we see that his hands begin to shake (perhaps like the DTs). The film touches on some socio-political points – around black culture, around the role of women in society and around the divisions between classes – however none of these are firmly explored. There is a religious aspect (one of the best scenes is a later scene in the gospel church) but this owes as much to the original film as to being a discussion point. More firmly explored is the subject of addiction; turning to theft, attacking and murdering people and the destruction of family units, but there are other vampire films that explore that more thoroughly.

This isn’t a bad film, it is just overshadowed by the original in theme and acting. The updating of it doesn’t really add anything more, so whilst it is worth catching (perhaps more so if you are a big fan of Spike Lee as there are Lee themes running through the film) given the choice I would watch Bill Gunn’s original. This is longer than the original (which itself is substantially longer in the full version than the blaxploitation versions) and I think the pacing suffers a tad for it. As a final point, I did rather enjoy the coda scene, which had an almost Rollin’s feel to it. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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