A Spike Lee Joint. I always smile when those words grace a film's opening. It's not a credit we can always expect as Lee occasionally chooses the more drab, "a Spike Lee film," when embarking on potential money makers. Some for better, such as Inside Man, and some for worse, such as his regrettable remake of Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy. I was pleased and excited to learn his newest, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an official Spike Lee joint.
For better or worse, this marks the long awaited return of Spike Lee the auteur, as opposed to Spike Lee the blockbuster seeker.
Anthropologist Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) finds himself in possession of a rare African artifact, an ancient blade that will act as the doorway into the world of vampires and blood dependency.
Not the first story to use vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, nor the best coming hot on the heels of the far superior, Only Lovers Left Alive.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a rather faithful remake of Bill Duke's blaxsplotation classic, Ganja and Hess. Strangely, the new film also bears a connection to Lee's previous, Red Hook Summer, a searing and disturbing work of underrated brilliance, which took place in a New York church. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus opens in that same church, before meandering off to scenic Martha's Vineyard, where the blood starts to flow.
One day, Lafayette, Dr. Greene's unhinged assistant dies. Soon after, Dr. Greene meets Lafeyette's wife, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) who has come looking for her husband. It isn't long before Dr. Greene begins a strained relationship with Ganja. Abrahams steals every scene, despite the lackluster dialogue she's forced to recite. Even her most difficult moments are delivered with intelligent nuance. Expect to see Abrahams popping up in bigger projects in the future. In many ways, her breakthrough performance is the only reason to see this film.
Lee has a distinct visual style that has served him well over the years on such films as Do The Right Thing, He Got Game, Summer of Sam and The 25th Hour. His style can be incredibly charming when handled with proper restraint. Unfortunately, those trademark Lee touches flop to the floor, lifeless and shoehorned in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. It's the most undisciplined film Lee has made in over a decade.
Much of the soundtrack music also feels tonally out of place, despite the near constant lyrical references to blood. (We get it. Enough about the blood.) The choices muddle the effect of many key scenes, as if you're watching a YouTube video and a song suddenly starts playing from another browser.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a horror story about ideas, instead of emotions, which is it's downfall. When Lee asks us to feel sympathy for the plight of his protagonists, we feel nothing because we never really got to know these characters.
Individual moments work nicely on their own, in particular an intense dinner table scene contains some of the film's best moments. However, these moments are too infrequent. It's a shame, since Lee has made amazing films in the past, proudly championing ideas over emotion, such as Bamboozled.
Hardcore Spike Lee completists may find some pearls within the sea of fake blood and terse silences. Unfortunately, your average horror audience would be better off rewatching Bill Duke's original film.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.