When I heard that Spike Lee had decided to turn to Kickstarter to fund his vampire movie Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (a remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 horror film Ganga & Hess), I felt a little melancholy. Sure, Lee's arguably had more misses than hits in the last few years, but he remains an important filmmaker. Surely a studio could fork over a few million bucks for the latest Spike Lee joint (particularly in our current vampire-friendly climate). Having seen the finished product, I can understand why Lee didn't bother approaching the suits: this is a slow, meditative drama that's more concerned with metaphorically examining a multitude of social issues than with monster movie theatrics. That's not a problem, but Lee's wobbly craftsmanship certainly is.
While Da Sweet Blood of Jesus isn't quite as messy as Red Hook Summer (Lee's previous low-budget endeavor), it's still hard to escape the sense that the director no longer has a firm command of tone and pacing. Beyond that, it's pretty clear that the lack of substantial financing is hurting Lee's work in other ways: the fact that he's required to work with easily affordable actors and shoot on a very tight schedule leads to a lot of performances that feel stilted, inconsistent or just plain off. In a way, it makes a certain amount of sense that Lee has decided to place this film in the same cinematic universe as Red Hook Summer. The movies are in entirely different genres (one's a down-to-earth coming-of-age tale, while the other's a heavily stylized vampire flick), but both contain heavy religious elements, provocative social commentary and lots of bad acting.
Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams, Phil Spector) is a wealthy Brooklyn art collector and anthropologist who has just come into possession of an extraordinarily valuable Ashanti dagger. The dagger once belonged to a culture obsessed with mysterious blood rituals, and Hess is keen to know more about its origins. He hires the emotionally volatile Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco, Clockers) as his research assistant, which proves a terrible decision: Hightower murders Hess with the dagger and then kills himself. Ah, but the story is just beginning: Hess comes back to life with a thirst for blood.
Though Hess initially tries to do the relatively noble thing and steal blood from a local hospital, he quickly decides that the his happiness and survival will require the real thing. He begins hunting easy targets: lonely single mothers and cheap prostitutes – all African-American, I might add. He lures them into bed, and midway through an intense sexual encounter, he kills them and laps up their blood. He seduces and destroys them. It's here that the film starts to become a meaty social commentary, offering a tale in which a wealthy black man literally preys on a poor black community – a cautionary tale about the potential moral cost of success. Hess isn't bound by the rules of most vampires – he can walk around in daylight and doesn't have sharp teeth – but he's still susceptible to crosses. One of the film's most striking sequences is set in the same church that served as Red Hook Summer's central location, and provides both an extended sequence of gripping cinematic energy and a profound spiritual point.
Unfortunately, it's a long-ass journey to that great sequence, and there aren't enough similarly compelling moments along the way to compensate for the amount of filler offered up. Much of the movie is occupied by Hess' relationship with Ganga (Zaraah Abrahams, Waterloo Road), Hightower's snooty British widow. He professes his love for her, and she accepts an invitation to live with him (and eventually marry him) despite her knowledge of his true nature. The romance drags, partially because the dialogue between the two is largely bland and partially because Lee doesn't seem particularly interested in getting beneath the surface of the relationship. Abrahams delivers a memorable, affecting monologue about a dark moment in her childhood and the difficulties a black woman faces in the modern world, but her performance is otherwise all over the map.
The film was shot in a mere 16 days, which perhaps explains some of the film's technical inconsistencies, but it doesn't explain why Lee's editing is so slack. He seems to be going for a sort of dreamlike texture, as scenes nearly turn into minimalist music videos (sometimes accompanied by a Bruce Hornsby score, sometimes by one of Lee's eclectic song selections – some of which work, and some of which signal a scene's intent long before they ought to). That's not the feeling he achieves though, as a lot of cuts simply look as if they're starting too soon and ending too late. There are plenty of memorable images, but they feel like self-contained bursts. The film as a whole doesn't boast a particularly strong aesthetic.
As with Red Hook Summer, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a film I want to like more than I do. Both theoretically represent a noble attempt for Lee to get back to his small-scale, socially conscious roots, but he no longer seems able to conjure much of the explosive energy or cutting insight that his early efforts (or even something as recent as The 25th Hour – a modern masterpiece) provided. In fairness, this is a deliberately meditative film, but “meditative” slips into “dull” so easily when the craftsmanship isn't on-point. It's still hard to give up on Lee, though: when you're given something as powerful as the church sequence in this film, you're reminded that you're still watching the work of a great filmmaker. The fire has faded, but a few sparks are still there.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2015