After a brief prologue, Spike Lee's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus opens in the same Brooklyn church that was the centerpiece of his Red Hook Summer. The moment seemingly connects Sweet Blood not just to the 2012 film but also to movies further back in his career, since Red Hook itself was billed as part of Lee's "Chronicles of Brooklyn," which include his early classics like She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.
The scene is something of a red herring, though. For one thing, most of Sweet Blood takes place on a large Martha's Vineyard estate, not in Brooklyn. It's also a remake of Bill Gunn's 1973 moody horror film Ganja and Hess (which just played as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Tell It Like It Is" series) and tells the story of a wealthy archaeologist, Hess (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who turns into a vampire after being stabbed with an Ashanti dagger by his research assistant (Elvis Nolasco). Later, Hess falls in love with his assistant's ex-wife, Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams), and turns her into a vampire as well.
The movie's story, in other words, stands out quite starkly in Lee's filmography. It does share Red Hook Summer's somewhat erratic approach to narrative, but even in this respect, it pushes the envelope much further, a decision that actually makes Sweet Blood a more provocative — and at times mesmerizing — movie than Red Hook, though one that can still be baffling to watch.
There might seem like no better moment to release a remake of a 1970s vampire horror film, but Sweet Blood will disappoint Twilight fans in the same way that Ganja and Hess let down anyone in 1973 who expected Blacula. Hess's desire here is treated as an addiction, as in Jim Jarmusch's vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive, but with none that movie's elegance. For Hess and Ganja, satisfying their desire for blood is a violent and ravenous affair, and the explicit way Lee films their feedings suggests he has carried over some lessons from his 2013 remake of Oldboy.
More off-putting than the violence—and also more intriguing, frustrating, perplexing—is how Lee eschews any simple approach to narrative while telling what ultimately is a simple story of a man and woman who must reconcile their insatiable desire for blood with the immoral actions required to satisfy it.
The film's pacing, deliberate and foreboding as the story leads up to Hess's conversion, eventually gives way to a more irregular structure. Extended scenes—a party that Hess hosts for his well-to-do neighbors shortly after becoming a vampire, or his trip all the way to Brooklyn for the sole purpose of finding a body to feed on—often seem disconnected, with only minimal explanation or justification offered later.
And what can we make of the film's prologue, a beautiful dance montage set in various locations across Brooklyn that blends hip-hop and ballet? It's a gorgeous display, but Lee never returns to it, its connection to the rest of the film only tangentially explicable through broad themes about the body and flesh that he goes on to explore.
Sweet Blood also uses its vampire story to reflect on violence, religion, race, and, in its repeated shots of Hess' African art collection, the splendor and power of African civilizations. But Lee offers few easy answers about what he wants us to take away from it all.
It's tempting to call the film muddled and be done with it, but there's an inventiveness and beauty to Lee's visuals here—whether in the rapturous prologue or the mysterious closing shot—and an experimentation in the execution that's hard to ignore. Sweet Blood is at once minimalist, paring down plot details to the bare necessities in many of its scenes, and, due to its sexuality and graphic violence, excessive. It's a combination that makes watching it a singular experience.
Lee funded Sweet Blood through Kickstarter, and he has used the independence offered by that model to craft one of his most enigmatic works. It's not entirely clear what to make of it, but then again, there's an ambition in Sweet Blood that won't allow it to be discounted.