It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is Spike Lee's first crowdfunded feature and his second remake in a row, following "Oldboy" (a film I liked better than most critics), but as you might expect, given the defiantly idiosyncratic nature of this director, it's not content to be a rehash.
The movie follows the template of its source material, Bill Gunn's cult favorite "Ganja and Hess," pretty closely, and even evokes its sorrowful, romantic, dreamy tone as it portrays a love affair between two bloodlusting individuals; but it's connected to the real world. It works through many of Lee's familiar preoccupations (including racism, cultural assimilation, class anxiety, capitalistic exploitation and addiction) in such a blunt way that it might fit nicely on a double bill with "Jungle Fever" or "Summer of Sam." The latter were dismissed as jumbled messes by many, but had an undeniable feverish intensity, as if the writer-director were determined to work through every sociopolitical issue obsessing him at that moment; like many of his films, but even more so, they were kitchen-sink dramas, sermons, music videos and tragedies all at the same time, the individual aspects working at cross-purposes with each other, often thrillingly and sometimes to the films' detriment.
But Lee's most persistent problem, an inability to unify his messages and make them cohere, doesn't really hurt him in "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" because the film is a hypnotically nightmarish mood piece more than anything else; it makes sense and yet doesn't make sense, in the way that dreams do and don't make sense. Ideas bleed into other ideas and morph into third, tangentially related ideas; notions are teased and then dropped; almost unbearably savage violence is perpetrated on characters who often have done nothing to deserve their fates; not once does Lee trouble himself with questions of likability, much less the possibility that he's following his own muse to the point where he's losing people. This will prove either maddening or refreshing, depending on whether your willingness to go where Lee takes you overwhelms your desire for something more conventionally neat and clearheaded.
Stage actor Stephen Tyrone Williams stars as Dr. Hess Greene, a noted anthropologist studying the ancient Ashanti Empire. In the opening scene, he comes into possession of an ancient dagger that triggers a complete change in his world, which is centered around a handsome Martha's Vineyard estate that measures exactly (ahem) 40 acres. The story, such as it is, kicks into gear when his depressed research assistant, Dr. Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), attempts suicide, then grapples murderously with Hess in a close-quarters struggle involving the dagger. Without giving too much away, let's say that this struggle ends with Hess transformed into a nightcrawling loner with a thirst for human blood.