As far as I’m concerned this is some major news for anyone who even claims to love black cinema. The news is that writer and director Bill Gunn’s otherworldly and fascinating 1973 film Ganja & Hess is coming out on blu-ray DVD from Kino International on May 8th.
To call the film a vampire horror film is much too simplistic and yet it’s hard to explain exactly what the film is about since it travels over various different genres and concepts. Made during the height of the blaxploitation era, the film was Gunn’s second feature after he made the film Stop for Warner Brothers in 1970 (a film the studio immediately shelved because it was reportedly scared by its interracial sex premise and has never been seen by anyone, at least to my knowledge).
Gunn bounced back from that setback by making G & H independently for $300,000. However the financiers, who thought they were getting another Blacula movie, where thrown for a loop when Gunn delivered to them his bizarre, mind bending film that was more visually reminiscent of the stark, cinema verite-style dramatic films of John Cassavetes.
The result was a film about a rich doctor infelcted with “vampirism”, as it’s caled in the film, who after stealing blood from health clinics and blood banks is reduced to killing people and draining them of their blood to survive. But it’s much more than that, which according to one critic, addresses “any number of topics related to Black life in white America from drug addiction to servitude to capitalist propriety, bourgeous gluttony to spirital ideology, to the selling out of principles and kowtowing to the system, to “letting go and letting God”.
The film indeed does all of that while mixing in African symbolism and rituals and a healthy dose of sexuality to a haunting effect.
Starring Duane Jones, Marlene Clark and Gunn himself in the a supporting role, the film was barely seen after a few theater openings.in New York and was recut and shortened to emphasize the sex and violence in the film under the title Blood Couple. It’s only been in the past few years that the film has been restored to its original 113 minute version, and now to have the film coming out on blu-ray DVD, is something that I never thought would ever happen.
Gunn, unfortunately, never directed another film and spent the rest of his life until his death in 1989, acting in occasional roles such as a recurring role on The Cosby Show on NBC in during the 1980’s. But Ganja & Hess is and remains his most lasting, important and vibrant work that absolutely needs to be seen.
Here’s a scene from the film: