Jones only had two lead roles in his trailblazing film career, but they were
both truly iconic for genre film connoisseurs. The first was George Romero’s
enduringly popular Night of the Living Dead. Remaking such a familiar film was a perilous proposition, as both
makeup artist Tom Savini and team of filmmakers not affiliated with Romero have
proved on separate occasions. Bill Gunn’s Ganja
& Hess is a different story. Less well known, the 1973 experimental
exploitation film exists in both director and studio cuts, making issues of
authenticity more complicated. Nevertheless, Spike Lee remains devotedly faithful
to Gunn’s narrative throughout Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (trailer
which releases today on DVD and BluRay.
Hess Greene is an independently wealthy anthropologist, who specializes in the
Ashanti people and their cultural obsession with blood (which Dr. Wiki has
never heard of). He is about to commence a major research project when his jittery
new research assistant, Dr. Lafayette Hightower stabs him repeatedly with a
ceremonial Ashanti knife, before blowing his brains out. Strangely, Dr. Greene
does not die. He merely wakes up rather the worse for wear, with a powerful
Hightower’s hot but cold ex-wife Ganja comes looking for her disappointing
former husband, but finds the very rich and highly interested Greene instead.
Of course, he also happens to be undead. As they fall for each other he starts
planning for their eternal future together, but Greene’s new existence will
become more draining (in more ways than one) than he ever anticipated.
Ganja and Hess will essentially become vampires, but neither film really plays
up the traditional Universal/Hammer/Anne Rice motifs. These are very
existential vampires, isolated by privilege and addiction, like Howard Hughes
or Brian Wilson. It is never exactly scary, but there are several sly “here-it-comes”
moments. Lee also manages to maintain a distinctively icy vibe throughout the
the best thing going for Sweet Blood is
its soundtrack. This is easily Bruce Hornsby’s best and most jazz-oriented film
work yet. Featuring contributions from prominent musicians like Vernon Reid on
guitar, Lew Soloff on trumpet, Esther Noh on violin, Clark Gayton on trombone,
and Patience Higgins and Stacy Dillard on tenor, it often sounds somewhat akin
to his terrific debut jazz release, Camp Meeting.
that were not enough, the soundtrack also includes licensed tracks from Milton
Nascimento’s Journey to Dawn album,
as well as performances from the church band previously seen in Red Hook Summer, with Jonathan Batiste
returning as the Hammond B3 organist, “TK Hazelton.” It all might sound too
upbeat and soulful for a tale of quiet undead desperation, but it really helps
pull viewers through many scenes that would otherwise be rather slow and aesthetically
time to time, Sweet Blood does indeed
intersect with the world of Red Hook.
Considering how painful his last original narrative film truly was, this would
sound like a very bad idea on paper. Yet, the excursions to the “Little Church”
give the new film greater depth and heart. Frankly, unlike Lee’s ill-advised remake
of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Sweet Blood is a pretty good film.
Perhaps it is time Lee swore off originals and just stuck to reboots and sports
Greene, Stephen Tyrone Williams is cold fish, by design, but almost to a fault.
However, it is great fun to watch Zaraah Abrahams ravenously chew the scenery
Ganja Hightower, the temptress who will not be denied. Naté Bova also makes a
strong impression as Tangier Chancellor, Hightower’s potential rival turned
target of seduction. By genre standards, Sweet
Blood is quite sensual, but Lee must have directed Abrahams’ horny-porny
scene with Bova in a raincoat. It is the one time the film’s disciplined
restraint goes out the window.
Be that as it is, Sweet Blood gets under the skin precisely because it is mostly so reserved
and cold-blooded. It is not one hundred percent successful, but it is an intriguing
outing from a filmmaker who hasn’t been interesting outside of New York sports
documentaries for some time. Recommended for fans of Lee and Gunn’s 1973 cult
classic, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is
now available on DVD from Anchor Bay and Gravitas Ventures.
Labels: Bruce Hornsby, DVD, Jonathan Batiste, Spike Lee, Vampire films