THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS"
Spike Lee has had an incredibly varied career. He's made two outright masterpieces (Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X), some solidly admirable films (Summer of Sam, The 25th Hour), one box office hit (Inside Man), a couple of well-regarded cable documentaries (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke), and a bunch of movies that were either admirable failures (such as Miracle at St. Anna, Girl 6, and Bamboozled) or outright flops (Oldboy). This comes on top of his music video and commercial work. Perhaps because he's refused to put himself in any one box, Lee doesn't get the same recognition as a Cinematic Master that many of his contemporaries get. And that's unfair, because few filmmakers are as willing to take risks as he is. The newest Spike Lee joint, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (hitting DVD and Blu-Ray on May 26), finds him experimenting again, this time with vampiric horror.
A remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 film Ganja & Hess, Da Sweet Blood tells the story of Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an archeologist who develops an insatiable thirst for blood after his assistant stabs him with an ancient dagger, said to have been a relic from a “blood society.” Greene doesn't sprout fangs or avoid sunlight, but he does drink the red stuff and find that he's impervious to injury. Preying on hookers, single mothers, and others, he eventually realizes that his desire isn't becoming of his otherwise austere, academic image. Then he meets Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the widow of his assistant. They become romantically involved, but it's more than love that they share; he introduces the joy of blood-drinking to her, thereby creating a situation that alters both of their lives.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an example of a genre I call “art-horror,” where the goal isn't to scare so much as it is to explore uncomfortable ideas in a thought-provoking, artfully-executed manner. (Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is another recent example.) There are a couple of gruesome moments in the movie, but by and large, Lee is more interested in tone than he is in jolting the audience. Together with cinematographer Daniel Patterson, he establishes an unsettling, dangerous atmosphere for the characters to inhabit. (Credit also goes to Bruce Hornsby, for his haunting piano-based score.) For this reason, Da Sweet Blood is the kind of film that gradually gets under your skin, slowly pulling you in as things unfold.
Of course, this being a Spike Lee movie, there's a lot of thematic ambition. The story uses the idea of vampirism as a means of exploring heavier ideas. The plot of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus can be taken as an allegory for a number of things, including sex, addiction, upward mobility, and a society's compulsion toward violence. Or, as a mixture of them all. Regardless of your take, the story of Ganja and Hess is one that inherently deals with an inability to avoid getting sucked into something, even when it starts to become bad for you. It's about the point at which one loses control and goes down a path of self-destruction. The screenplay effectively mines the psychological impact of that, showing how the game is lost once your perspective vanishes.
Williams and Abrahams give very strong performances, and Lee is savvy enough to allow them long, unbroken takes in which to show how their characters' emotions shift or elevate in important scenes. If anything, the most disturbing stuff in the movie isn't the occasional bursts of violence, but the internal terror being experienced by the two leads as they plunge further and further into a personal hell from which there seems no easy way out.
At a touch over two hours, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus sporadically drags a bit. Also, the idea of the relationship between Ganja and Hess is developed more than the actual relationship is - which is to say, it's more symbolic than emotional. As an art-horror film, though, this is an engaging work, one that finds Spike Lee adapting his considerable skills to a new genre. It's not his best movie, but it's definitely one of his most unlikely, and therefore most fascinating.
( out of four)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesis is unrated, but contains moments of strong bloody violence, sex/nudity, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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