NEW YORK – A remake as peculiarly heartfelt as his cover version of Park Chan-wook‘s Oldboy was slickly professional, Spike Lee‘s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus looks to Bill Gunn‘s 1973 oddity Ganja and Hess in an attempt to say something about addiction. Here, compulsions that plague the real world are viewed through the lens of one that only haunts our pop culture: Though Lee doesn’t like to call his protagonists vampires, they are undead, crucifix-averse creatures addicted to drinking human blood. Their story, which mostly unfolds on a luxe, windswept Martha’s Vineyard estate, hews to genre conventions even less than Only Lovers Left Alive, the recent vampire tale by Lee’s contemporary Jim Jarmusch, and the picture can expect almost zero support from horror buffs. Yet it is gory enough to alienate more mainstream audiences as well, and its sexualized take on the material elicited some snickers even from this highly sympathetic festival crowd. This is an even less commercial film than Lee-helmed flops like She Hate Me and Red Hook Summer; while its controversial Kickstarter-enabled production means few investors will be left crying, it seems destined to be a footnote in the director’s filmography.
That $1.25 million Kickstarter campaign funded a shoot on which Lee’s NYU students play key roles (Daniel Patterson‘s vivid lensing is one of the picture’s biggest assets) and the cast is headed by unknowns. (The Wire‘s Michael K. Williams, who as of this writing is still listed as one of the leads on both the Kickstarter page and IMDb, isn’t in the film.) Stephen Tyrone Williams plays Dr. Hess Greene, an academic whose inherited wealth allows him to research his historical passions in style. His seaside home is stuffed with choice African tribal antiques; when he wants to visit his Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park, a chauffeured Rolls-Royce awaits.
Hess has been looking into surgical rites he claims were performed by the Ashanti people long before the height of the Egyptian Empire — rituals involving the draining of blood. But only after an intruder stabs him with a ceremonial Ashanti dagger, a mortal wound from which he mysteriously recovers, does Hess embrace this practice himself: He sucks blood from the living and the recently killed alike, and stocks a cellar fridge with bags stolen from a nearby blood bank.
When he meets Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the British ex-wife of his former research assistant, he falls immediately for the haughty, high-maintenance woman. (Her interactions with Hess’s courtly manservant, who is well played by Rami Malek, offer almost the only hint of humor in the film.) He marries her within days, kills her and waits for her to be reborn as his blood-spattered bride. Hess guides Ganja through the basics of her new diet, watching as she struggles to overcome her revulsion (almost as much blood is vomited up as is imbibed in the course of the film) and then sets her up with her first victim, his voluptuous former girlfriend.
Lee tries too hard to turn us on in this sequence, in which the women seduce each other before Ganja makes the kill. The titillation flirts with self-parody, and the subsequent shot, of husband and wife lapping a pool of blood off a bathroom floor like house cats, is even worse. (Viewers who saw Cronos, Guillermo del Toro‘s 1993 twist on vampire mythology, may remember a similar but much more effectively unsettling image.)
Lee says that he hasn’t seen Gunn’s original film in years, but whether by design or coincidence, Sweet Blood easily conjures the airless, alternate-reality feel of certain low-budget ’70s indies; its mannered performances and self-conscious monologues feel like nothing in contemporary cinema. They pair oddly with Bruce Hornsby‘s wistful, wholesome score, which encourages us to expect a moral message that never really materializes: As allegory, the picture requires viewers to connect most of the dots without assistance, offering a preachy bit of dialogue once or twice but failing to use action or the camera to say much about non-sanguinary addictions. (By comparison, Jarmusch required only a few shots of glassed-over eyes and blissed-out levitation to link his hipster bloodsuckers’ pleasures to those pursued by heroin addicts.)
Hornsby’s music is a beautiful counterpoint, though, to one of two music-driven scenes (the other is a church-set gospel number) that are among the film’s most compelling moments: During the opening credits, his piano accompanies a dance by jookin’ sensation Lil Buck that is as effective a piece of mood-setting as the thrilling Rosie Perez number that kicked off Do the Right Thing. Unfortunately, this film is nowhere near as successful as that one in living up to its opening.
Production company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Cast: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Zaraah Abrahams, Rami Malek, Elvis Nolasco
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Bill Gunn, Spike Lee; based on the film “Ganja and Hess” by Bill Gunn
Producers: Spike Lee, Chris Schultz
Director of photography: Daniel Patterson
Production designer: Kay Lee
Costume designer: Ruth Carter
Editor: Randy Wilkins
Music: Bruce Hornsby
Sales: Bart Walker, ICM
No rating, 123 minutes