Review: Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus

A remake of 70’s cult blaxploitation title Ganja & Hess, Spike Lee’s latest joint is a Kickstarter funded horror film; his first effort in the genre and one of the precious few recent horrors from a  black creative team. One can bemoan the conspicuous absence of black voices in horror (there was a very interesting article just recently on The Dissolve), but this blog entry is first and foremost meant to serve as a review of Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. And so let us meet the film as such.

Lee opens the film with a credits sequence that quite happily positions the film outside of horror expectations; his block credits appearing around a dancer of impressive fluidity moving in a number of different daytime New York settings. Yet once this engaging business has been dispensed with we move much more purposefully forward with the matter at hand. Yet still, wisely, Lee approaches the material as if it were any other drama; he doesn’t pander to the expectations of horror. It immediately makes Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus a stylistically interesting horror entry.

Our story opens with the religious and erudite Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), collector of African art, receiving a dagger-like artefact and discussing its legend; a myth wrapped up in an addiction to the drinking of human blood which ravaged an entire country. Later that evening he discovers his colleague Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) attempting to kill himself on his property. Dr. Greene talks him down, literally, only to be attacked with that same new artefact. Hightower finishes what he started. A murder-suicide type deal. However, the artefact bestows a strange regenerative power and addiction on Greene; he is unable to take his own life, yet he hungers for human blood. As he struggles to gain understanding of his new compulsions, Hightower’s wife Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) pays a visit, and they soon begin a charged love affair.

Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson (The Wire) appears  as a prostitute solicited by Greene prior to Ganja’s arrival. He takes her home, they toast with a drink (“Champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends”) and Greene attacks her, though finds her blood disgusting. Plagued by worry, he has himself tested for AIDs – Lee openly discussing one of vampirism’s most recurrent modern metaphors.

But this is not a vampire story per se; many of the mythic attributes of the vampire do not apply to Dr. Greene. He walks in the daylight, has a reflection etc, etc. Yet it plays in the same field, dabbles in the same inherent eroticism.

Elsewhere, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus is enjoyably witty and knowing. Greene endures the upper-class pleasantries of his local white neighbours at a soirée, drinking blood recently stolen from a medical facility. Katharine Borowitz’ haughty Ms. Staples rudely drinks from his glass and, disgusted, insists Greene’s man-servant Seneschal Higginbottom (Rami Malek) spice it up with some vodka and black pepper. The scene mocks Staples’ patronising perception that she is able to school Greene, though Greene is ultimately the scene’s victim; unable to stomach the resulting cocktail. Later, Abrahams and Malek chew the scenery over Ganja gaining access to Greene’s private wine cellar; her English accent and his affected one skews the scene into playful mockery of your traditional white caste comedies of manners.

Lee keeps things crisp, clean, elegant even; Greene’s wealthy home belaying the film’s modest budget. It’s a welcome palette-cleanser from the usual aesthetic language through which horror tends to be delivered. As such, I rather enjoyed Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus for the most part, despite some occasionally stilted scenes and a script that yo-yos between dialogue of eloquent and hokey construction. Williams and Abrahams’ fresh faces make the performances occasionally hard to gauge, so peculiar is some of the material they have to work with. Williams has undeniable presence, however, and carries the film with some confidence.

I’ve not seen the original Ganja & Hess; it’s something of a difficult find, even today (hopefully something Lee’s film will rectify). the day after writing this I discovered Eureka! have given it a generous re-release which I purchased but haven’t yet watched. As such I simply cannot report on this film’s fidelity to the source, nor how it compares in terms of quality and so forth. Taken on its own terms therefore, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus is a partway successful, encouraging move from Lee. Certainly more successful in execution than his dismal Oldboy remake, here’s hoping that its relative conspicuousness on the modern horror spectrum provokes a revival in black voices from the genre. In terms of quality, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus veers dramatically – a scene in which Ganja seduces Hess’ former girlfriend with Lee’s camera whirling around them feels overly staged and awkward, and it’s not the only example available – though its modest size and occasional missteps are offset by the plethora of potent metaphors and Lee’s admirable ambition for a project clearly close to his heart.

Score:  2.5

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