Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
I've got to give Spike Lee some credit - while it's far from his best work, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is easily one of his least commercial and peculiar ventures. The picture is a remake, of sorts, of Bill Gunn's dreamy, surreal and sort of legendary 1973 blaxploitation vampire film "Ganja and Hess." Whereas Gunn's original film was of a philosophical nature and explored concepts of African American identity, Lee's movie is a little all-over-the-place and appears to be primarily concerned with the theme of addiction (the characters are never overtly referred to as vampires and both agree they are "addicted" to drinking blood).

At the film's beginning, Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a collector of obscure African art who lives at his deceased parents' secluded home in Martha's Vineyard, is given a large dagger of unknown origin by a friend. A new assistant arrives to help him with his work and there's clearly something off about the guy, which is only reinforced when Hess finds the man sitting in a tree with a rope around his neck. Hess talks the man down, but is then attacked by him the next day and stabbed with the dagger. The assistant then commits suicide.

Shortly thereafter, Hess begins craving blood, which he, at first, steals from a lab, but then resorts to obtaining by hooking up with women, killing them and drinking their blood. The wife of the assistant, whom Hess now has frozen in an icebox in his basement, shows up. Her name is Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) and Hess immediately takes an interest in her. A romance - if you could call it that - sort of blossoms and, without asking her permission, Hess immortalizes Ganja.

Both vampires now, the two characters lure folks to their home and kill them for their blood - that is, until Hess undergoes some sort of spiritual crisis, leading to the film's most striking moment when Hess attends a church service and attempts to be saved. During the sequence, Lee employs one of his most oft-used techniques - that of the effect in which a character's head in close-up appears to move forward as if floating, while everything on the side or in the background moves backward. Lee lingers on a church band tearing the roof off with a gospel number and the scene has a transfixing power.

So, it's too bad that the rest of the film feels so uneven. "Ganja and Hess" had an almost otherworldly quality to it - hell, who can forget that final bizarre shot? - and Lee's picture often attempts to mimic that aura. Sometimes, it works: there are a handful of eerily haunting sequences during which Ganja and Hess linger on the water off Martha's Vineyard. And there are more than a few scenes that fall flat - particularly one in which Ganja attempts to seduce one of Hess's former flames.

Lee is one of the most idiosyncratic of American filmmakers. Much like Robert Altman or Steven Soderbergh, he's not afraid to experiment or tackle challenging material. This has led to some masterpieces ("Malcolm X" and the seminal "Do the Right Thing"), great films (the underrated "Clockers" and "Summer of Sam" as well as the terrific turn-of-the-century drama "25th Hour"), very good ones ("Crooklyn," for instance) and then some others that have not worked so well ("She Hate Me" or "Red Hook Summer," for example). "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is, sadly, not one of Lee's best. I admire it in that it's one groundbreaking director (Lee) tipping his hat to another (Gunn), but it doesn't quite work.

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