Even when Spike Lee remakes a horror movie, he can’t sell out. For one thing, the “horror movie” he has remade is an artsy 1973 item named Ganja and Hess, a film nearly lost but later restored, and generally known only to die-hard cult-flick fanatics and serious students of African-American cinema. For another, Lee has taken a page from the original film’s writer/director, Bill Gunn, and made the film with a leisurely, unhurried pace, full of ennui … well, it kind of drags, if you want to know. Under the new title Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Lee’s movie repeats Gunn’s themes of vampirism as addiction and the painful dichotomy of a black man torn between African spirituality and American Christianity. Lee certainly doesn’t schlock things up. But, other than some left-field lesbian flirtation late in the game, he doesn’t add much excitement, either.
As before, the new film follows scholar Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) on his journey into blood obsession after his insane assistant stabs him with a cursed ancient weapon. The curse renders Hess immortal but also addicted to blood. He steals blood bags from a hospital; he preys on an AIDS-stricken prostitute, then on a young mother. Eventually the assistant’s ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for the assistant, and Hess seduces her into the life of the undead. There are minor and major changes — for instance, Lee disregards the climactic note of redemption on which Gunn sealed his movie — but Lee mostly traces Gunn’s template, right down to some dialogue (Gunn receives a 25-year-posthumous cowriting credit here).
I hate to say it, because I’ve always respected Lee’s work even when certain bold attempts have flatlined, but Ganja and Hess will stay with me longer than Da Sweet Blood of Jesus will. As a filmmaker, in terms of technique and talent, Lee has it all over Gunn, but Gunn was serious and passionate about this story in a way that Lee isn’t, quite. Lee is a fan of Ganja and Hess, and he decided to honor it and its maker, but the material itself doesn’t seem to light a fire in his belly. (It was a Kickstarter project, and a lot of it feels like a movie that could be reliably shot on the quick and cheap in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee lives some of the year.) Gunn’s film, despite or possibly because of its technical ineptitude, packs more DIY charm, and even on Blu-ray it looks chewed up and bruised, adding to its dreamlike effect. Lee’s film looks slicker, but to its detriment; it’s as though someone made a pristine-looking remake of Last House on Dead End Street … or, more to the point, George Romero’s Martin, another idiosyncratic vampire movie that could go on a double bill with Ganja and Hess.
This particular story, with its specific concerns about racial authenticity, is very much of its time. It doesn’t translate very well to 2015, when a young black man’s biggest concern is not losing his African soul but being shot by the cops. Lee’s version spends a lot of time on Ganja and Hess’s tragic love story, which indicates a misreading of what made the story unique in the first place. Stephen Tyrone Williams’ Hess is stoic and bland, lacking the brittle power Duane Jones brought to the role, but Zaraah Abrahams is fun to watch as Ganja, and she gets some heat going with the striking Naté Bova as an old flame of Hess’s. But Gunn had more on his mind and in his heart than Skinemax eroticism; his film was somehow lovable despite being completely uningratiating and stubbornly elliptical, because it felt pure. Ganja and Hess is art; Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a copy of art, and I don’t know that Gunn would be flattered by it.