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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 08.18.15] thriller drama

How Da Sweet Blood of Jesus came to be is beyond me and a better question still: how is this made by Spike Lee? Has he completely lost his way when it comes to making movies? Truth be told, it's a fascinating take on the vampire story (Lee can argue all he wants that this isn't a vampire story but hell, if this isn't a vampire story, neither is Dracula) which sees Stephen Tyrone Williams play historian Dr. Hess Greene who is doing research on a little known African tribe when he becomes infected by an artefact and finds himself craving blood.

After much wandering, Hess comes into contact with Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), the estranged wife of Hess' missing research partner. Ganja and Hess (ha!) begin a romantic relationship that eventually leads to her discovery of his secret. He turns her, she hates him for it then eventually forgives him before ending up on her own because he just can't handle what he's become. It's essentially every vampire story ever told but Lee's approach is unlike anything else you've seen before.

It's not really clear what Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is supposed to be. It' not a horror movie and it's not a social commentary that explores anything new in the vampire canon. It's still the same old tale of the perils of eternal life and of having to take life in order to survive and how that affects individuals in the long run. The point of interest here is Lee's approach which infuses the familiar story with an African twist but that's only used as set-up and doesn't come up again. There's no deep exploration of the mythology though that would have made for an interesting story. Prequel!

The acting is rigid and bland and it sometimes seems like the actors are in different movies. Williams is appropriately cold and removed from the people around him but he and Abrahams have zero chemistry. Rami Malek is provides the most fascinating performance as Hess' man servant/butler Seneschal Higginbottom. He's fidgety, dismissive and generally looks unimpressed and bored by his job. He has a clear dislike for Ganja and I couldn't help but think that he dislikes her so much because she's coming between him and Hess. Secret love? Perhaps. The fact that Malek manages to bring so much to a side role is impressive, particularly in a movie where the leads are wooden and largely uninteresting.

The highlight of Lee's movie is certainly the beautiful location and the concept of setting the story amidst high society. It makes for some interesting social observations, particularly in the movie's first half when Hess actually interacts with others. Most of the movie's second half focuses on Hess and Ganja as their relationship blossoms and at that point, the already slow moving vehicle comes to a crawl. There's plenty of back and forth between the two characters but most of it is inconsequential and at times, down right boring. There's a ham fisted attempt to humanize Ganja by having her share a story about her youth but that story comes splat in the middle of a monologue about something else. It's a head scratcher, and there are plenty more where that one came from. By far the movie's most distracting aspect is the soundtrack. Not only does it play loudly through most of the movie, often drowning out dialogue but Bruce Hornsby's score feels completely out of sync with the images and the music selections are just as strange, often feeling like polar opposites of what's going on in the story rather than supporting it.

The opening credit sequence for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus perfectly summarizes the movie: it's beautiful, but makes no sense in the larger context. Much of the movie, taken individually, is wonderful but as a package, it's a train wreck but one I couldn't look away from.

It's a carefully crafted slice of strange that is just weird enough to be a cult classic.

Recommended Release: Ganja & Hess

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