“You have not because you ask not”
I backed Spike Lee‘s Kickstarted Da Sweet Blood of Jesus because I was intrigued by an auteur of his stature being left to his own devices on a project as captivating as what he’d set forth. He said it was “a new kind of love story”—one about human beings addicted to blood that’s funny, sexy, and bloody. It was therefore disappointing when the adjective “new” altered into “1973 remake”. Since I haven’t seen Bill Gunn‘s Ganja & Hess, however, I kept an open mind to allow myself to pretend Spike’s latest was uniquely his own if not wholly original. It might have worked too if the final result didn’t feel like an amateurish piece done by his NYU students still in need of extensive polishing rather than something worthy of the “Spike Lee Joint” label adorning it.
Billed as a horror comedy, the only moments of earned laughter come via a sassy butler (Rami Malek‘s Seneschal) reacting to the overtly malicious indifference pouring down from his employer’s soon-to-be wife. Anything else that could be construed as comedic appears unintentional whether horribly obtrusive music playing too loudly over scenes meant to be dramatic; soap opera theatrics of the actors’ performances in those dramatic scenes; or the weirdly abrupt transitions causing you to wonder if the whole is unfinished. And as far as “sexy” goes, any sequence of seduction hoping for titillation is unsatisfyingly drawn out to lengths of extreme boredom. I could forgive this lack of making me feel anything at all if the plot itself was entertaining, but the story ultimately exists as nothing more than a framework for its failures in tone.
There’s a chance I’m missing something by not having seen Red Hook Summer because the opening title sequence arrives from another world altogether. It’s a rousing affair that got me excited to think Lee might go places way outside the box. In it is Lil Buck “jookin'” around a colorful NYC while cast and crew names superimpose behind him and the surrounding environment. We see multiple locales before ending on a neat structure of blocks spelling “Red Hook”. My anticipation was high as the music stopped—my mind wandering to ideas of horror, wishing a fiend would exit the shadows to drink his blood. Alas, Lil Buck simply sits down. We’re then transported to a church, briefly meet Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), and quickly land in Martha’s Vineyard where the bulk of the duration is set.
The dancing didn’t set tone, showcase a character we’ll see again, or provide an introduction to the main location. Maybe there’s some Red Hook vibe intrinsic to understanding Hess as a man, but I surely didn’t find it. Until he visits Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco) at a museum to acquire his latest piece of African art—an Ashanti dagger that renders its victim a vampire rather than zombie as folklore more readily states—nothing shown has any bearing on what’s to come. Sure there are the easy comparisons of Jesus and Communion to the undead and bloodlust, but those are intrinsic to any vampire film and obvious to one with “Jesus” in its title. Stabbing the artifact into Hess’ heart by shear accident courtesy of an insanely suicidal soul therefore proves lazy and random rather than poignant.
What follows is an excruciatingly futile exercise showing what Hess’ newfound disease entails. Spike goes through the motions as laboriously as possible, touching upon some interesting concepts like AIDS-tainted blood but never bringing their potential to fruition. There’s one turned vamp—sorry, blood addict—who’s actually let loose and forgotten. I get the commentary on drug addicts and how they’re everywhere, but the vampire metaphor demands closure above letting a monster roam free. The visual style is incomplete too as a scene where Hess feeds on a prostitute (Felicia Pearson) feels clunky as though missing frames. Perhaps a conscious grindhouse 70s aesthetic, it’s like Spike spliced together footage from an old Ganja & Hess reel case. It screams low budget, B-movie schlock before the out-of-place music comes to overwhelm our senses from what’s happening on screen.
I’ll even suggest these miscues are all a ploy of misdirection to confuse us from seeing how weak the work is beneath. I was already checked out by the time Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams) arrives. There was hope her inclusion would infuse much-needed drama, but she simply does whatever is suggested to her instead. Her prickly demeanor of strong-will crumbles like a house of cards as she ignores the fate of her ex-husband, feeds off of Hess’ way-too-soon declaration of love, and jumps headfirst into a life of immortality. Spike gives us thirty-minutes of Hess wetting his feet in how to satisfy his cravings—through tired tropes—and the central romantic relationship only receives five to fully develop? It’s as though Ganja and Hess unite solely for Lee to get his lesbian sex scene with Naté Bova.
By the time the credits roll I saw one positive from Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (two if you count giving Buffalo favorite Stephen McKinley Henderson a paycheck): Kickstarter can be a viable alternative financing avenue for auteurs of a caliber you’d assume don’t need it. Lee’s vocal defense of using the crowd-sourcing website was legitimate in stating how he’s been “Kickstarting” projects before Kickstarter began. This giant of the industry started independently and continues to thrive in that world beyond studio fare like Oldboy and Inside Man. I love that he raised the money to let his creative juices free; I’m simply disappointed the result shows that he might have dialed back his imagination. Rather than blindside with something we’ve never seen, a remake bringing nothing new to the genre seems wasteful beyond personal creative growth.