Review: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
PLOT: Dr. Hess Greene (Steven Tyrone Williams) becomes cursed with a thirst for blood after his deranged assistant stabs him with an ancient African dagger. His new addiction leads to a torrid romance with the widow of his first victim, the beautiful, alluring Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams).
REVIEW: Its been a rough couple of years for Spike Lee. Universally regarded as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his era, Lees had trouble making new films on par with his early revelatory work. MIRACLE AT ST.ANNA was a passion project that went awry, while RED HOOK SUMMER was a self-indulgent mess. Yet, both of those films had enough going on in them to prevent them from being complete disasters. Following an obviously unhappy experience with the flop remake of OLDBOY (which led to him not taking his customary A Spike Lee Join credit), the man is back with what the credits proudly call An Official Spike Lee Joint. Sadly, this joint just might be his worst ever as its the only time Id ever call a Lee film virtually unwatchable (although RED HOOK certainly came close).
A remake of 70s cult classic GANJA & HESS, DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS is sort-of a vampire movie, albeit one stripped of any genre elements or vamp trappings minus the thirst for blood. Once infected, Hess doesnt go around biting necks, but rather kills his victims and laps up their puddles of blood, almost like a dog. The premise itself is intriguing and the set-up is strong. The first ten minutes or so, where Hess has a conversation with his disturbed research assistant, Hightower (Lees regular Elvis Nolasco) before being violently attacked, promises a sophisticated yarn. Yet, once Hess is infected, the movie becomes episodic and unfocused.
Outside of an early scene where Hess picks up a prostitute to feed on (THE WIREs Felicia Snoop Pearson) most of the action is confined to the ultra-rich Hess sprawling Marthas Vineyard compound. As is customary for a Lee joint, racial and class commentary is paramount, with an early scene featuring a white guest pretty much ordering around the polite, cultured Hess at his own home, demanding he join them by adding some vodka to his cup of blood (which he says is a health shake). Yet, on the whole the film is free of the long, endless-sermons from RED HOOK SUMMER, although Lee seems to hold himself above making simple genre fare, making this come-off like an artsy vehicle thats only for his most devoted fans (i.e the ones who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that funded the movie).
As deadly dull as DA SWEET BLOOD winds up being, there are some good things about it. Williams makes for a cultured, urbane hero, although his struggle is never given much weight until the heavy-handed, religious finale. Likewise, Zaraah Abrahams as the sophisticated, beautiful Ganja feels like a good match for him although their love-story isnt really given room to breathe. Its especially tough to swallow that Ganja would so quickly take up with the man that killed her husband and stuffed his corpse in his wine cellar. Rami Maleks role as Hess adoring manservant also comes off a little thin and even a bit homophobic, with the obviously gay butler constantly shooting catty looks at Ganja (although Malek is quite funny in the wedding scene).
Even still, I have faith that Lee could bounce back if given the right vehicle. DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS is clearly not intended to be a mainstream film, but it feels like a tough slog for anyone - even Lee devotees. Then again, this and RED HOOK SUMMER were done so cost-effectively that maybe Lee, after decades of directing, has earned the right to follow-his-muse and do his own thing, even if its at his own peril. Hopefully the next Spike Lee joint will be a little more accessible, as this is pretty much just a curio.