MOVIE REVIEW: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)

By Dixielord

I'm not a fan of remakes. It's something to which most of my close movie-watching friends can attest. Still, I almost always end up giving them the benefit of the doubt and checking them out. Thus, when I heard that Spike Lee was doing a remake to what I consider a classic - an underrated horror film - I wasn't really excited. However, I also knew that I would end up watching it. The movie in question was Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a remake of the 1973 film Ganja and Hess.

Ganja and Hess, directed by Bill Duke, used vampirism as a metaphor for drug and other addictions. It starred Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead and was screened at Cannes film festival. Many think it is one of the most important black films of the era.

Stephen Tyrone Williams in Da Sweet Blood of JesusDirector Spike Lee has called Da Sweet Blood of Jesus a story about “humans addicted to blood”. Lee took the crowd sourcing route to maintain creative control of the film. This is where things get interesting. Spike Lee refuses to use the word vampire to describe the characters in the film. He was secretive about the plot of, and rumors spread that this was intended to be a remake of Blacula, a blacksploitation horror film better known to the general public than Ganja and Hess.

Instead, supporters and fans got what Lee referred to as a “new kind of love story”, which is, in fact, a near shot-for-shot remake of Ganja and Hess. Sweet Blood stars Stephen Tyrone Williams as Dr. Hess Greene and Zaraah Abrahams as Ganja Hightower. The plot follows so closely to the original 1973 film that a synopsis for one works for both.

Dr. Hess Greene is a cultural anthropologist and collector of African art. He is fascinated, in particular, with the work and myths of the Ashanti people (Myrthrian in the original). While researching an ancient Ashanti dagger he is attacked and killed by his unstable assistant, who then kills himself. The ritual dagger, however, causes Dr. Greene to be revived with a taste for blood, and apparently the desire to only drink it off the floor-not from the victim’s neck.

As Hess looks for victims to satisfy his blood addiction, he is eventually contacted by Ganja Hightower, the ex-wife of his deceased assistant. She moves into Greene's home, and the two eventually become lovers. Afraid of being alone, Hess transforms Ganja into another blood addict. While she takes to the bloodsucking life with relish, Greene tires of immortality and looks for a way out.

Remakes are doomed to be compared to their original source material. It's just a fact you can’t get away from. I wanted to review and judge Da Sweet Blood of Jesus as much as possible on its on merits, but found in fairness that I had to re-watch Ganja and Hess. I'm still going to try and judge it mostly on its own merits, or lack of merits, with a brief comparison of the two.

On the positive side, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is beautifully filmed. The opening dance scene, accompanied by a Bruce Hornsby score, is fun and light although weirdly out of place. As a matter of fact, the entire film is light, with only a few scenes happening at night. This seems strange for a vampire film, which Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is despite director Lee's denial. The musical score was another bright point throughout the movie but didn't seem to match the scenes they accompanied.

What I liked most about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was the story itself. It revolved around using vampirism as a metaphor for addictions, especially to drugs. It also focused on how you can either find salvation and escape from the addiction or you can wallow in its excess. This was what kept me watching Da Sweet Blood of Jesus despite its flaws. Yet how can you credit a film for its story when basically it's the same story you have seen before and with much better execution? I really don’t think you can. It’s almost the exact same story as Ganja and Hess with only a few changes. Most of these changes were unnecessary at best, while others actually hurt the story, especially the scene in the club which is shortened from the original. It changes the whole feeling of the scene and the overall character of Hess Greene.

There were some confusing plot elements that weren't fully explained that hurt my enjoyment of the film. One of the most glaring issues was what happened to the victims of the vampires. It appears that anyone killed by Lee's “blood addicts” became blood addicts themselves. They too are cursed with immortality and a need for blood. However, their final fate is left somewhat up in the air. We do see one victim being buried alive (or undead) without being dispatched. We see another victim wandering around apparently infecting others. In a classical vampire film this would work, but here it seems out of place. Dr. Greene is at least bothered by what he has become. To allow a victim to wander around infecting others or to callously bury them “alive” seems extremely sadistic and out of character.

What is most disappointing and what kills the film for me, is the acting. I can't recall ever hearing dialogue delivered as flat and emotionless as the lines delivered by lead Stephen Tyrone Williams. His conversations throughout the film are painful to watch and listen to. At certain points, I was almost convinced that this was all some twisted joke that only Spike and his cast were in on.

His costar, Zarrah Abrahams, tries to cover for Williams by overacting and overemoting every other line and screaming for no apparent reason. Her interactions with the butler Seneschal, played by Rami Malek, are absolutely idiotic. The entire character of Seneschal seems to be a bad joke - a stereotypical caricature of a gay man that belongs in another age.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus moves along as a snail's pace, similar to the pace of the original. Unlike its predecessor, however, Lee's film doesn't have the acting to keep the audience interested as the story unfolds. Not just the dialogue, but the characters are almost expressionless during most scenes. The times Williams does show emotion it's completely unbelievable, and Abrahams' acting and emoting is all over the place.

Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah AbrahamsOverall, there really isn't much to recommend about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which you can’t find better executed in Ganja and Hess. It’s a better looking, better photographed film; but, for me, the grainy look of the older movie was part of its magic. Both films contain quite a bit of male and female nudity, including male full frontal nudity, and sex in both films. There is also a bit of full frontal female nudity and a hot lesbian scene in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

The only real reason to watch the new film over the original is that it’s easier to find. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is streaming on Netflix as well as readily being available on DVD. Ganja and Hess, as far as I know can only be streamed from Fandor, but there is a now a decent DVD release so it can be found, and in this case, it’s worth the effort to find the original. Over all, I’m giving Da Sweet Blood of Jesus a very generous 2 out of 5 stars. It's a pretty film with pretty music, but over all it doesn't hold up to the original.

Posted by Allen Alberson

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