A film that was ahead of its time when it was released in 1973 – and, quite frankly, still very much is today – Bill Gunn’s rarely-screened allegorical cinema classic that revolutionized the vampire genre – “Ganja & Hess” – was suppressed in the United States because it wasn’t the Hollywood horror film that its producers had commissioned writer/director Bill Gunn to make.
This was during the blaxploitation era, and the hope was to cash in on the euphoria of the period, with “Ganja & Hess” (what essentially was to be a black version of popular mainstream vampire films, likely inspired by what we saw in “Blacula” a year earlier), but Bill Gunn had other plans.
Gunn is said to have shared the following with a confidant: “The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film… If I had to write about blood, I was going to do that, but I could not just make a movie about blood.”
And so he instead used vampirism as a proxy for addiction (although the complexity of the plot makes it nearly impossible to reduce the film to any simple metaphor or allegory), which may have been to the film’s box office detriment. Made on a $350,000 budget, the film was released in 1973 to critical acclaim (it was a Critics’ Week pick at the Cannes Film Festival that year, to start), but wasn’t exactly the box office draw that the producers had hoped for. It was soon yanked from theaters, sold to another company – Heritage Enterprises – who drastically recut Gunn’s original, and re-released it under the title “Blood Couple” (although you might find it listed under a number of other titles).
And so, for many years, what was essentially a bastardized, gutted version of the film (created without Gunn’s involvement) was all that was available. But thankfully, a print of the original Gunn film remained and, almost 30 years later, Kino Classics released the film as the original, stunning and complex director’s cut, which ignores conventional narrative structure, mastered in HD, from a 35mm negative.
Before “Ganja & Hess,” Gunn directed one film, titled “Stop,” in 1970, for Warner Bros. That film was also subject to a troubled release, as it was slapped with an X rating, for its handling of homosexual relationships, and was shelved by the studio. 40+ years later, the film still has not been formerly released.
Sadly, Gunn entered the business at a time when enterprising black filmmakers were limited in terms of the type of work that was available to them, especially at the studio level, and that was expected of them. Unfortunately, little has changed in that regard since then.
Among his other notable credits, he penned the script for Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (1970). He was an actor as well, making appearances in several TV shows from the 1950s until his death in 1989.
“Ganja & Hess” stars Duane Jones (as Hess – Dr. Hess Green) in an effective performance (the male lead of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”
Gunn also cast himself in the film as the mysterious and dommed George Meda, husband of Ganja.
Kino Classics’ re-release of Gunn’s original, rarely-screened cut – a film that is now starting to be recognized as a landmark work of cinema – is available on Blu-ray & DVD.
Special Features include: “The Blood of the Thing” (25 Min) an interview-based documentary; Audio commentary by producer Chiz Schultz, actress Marlene Clark, cinematographer James Hinton, and composer Sam Waymon; the original screenplay by Bill Gunn; an essay on the making of the film (and subsequent recutting) by David Walker and Tim Lucas; and a photo gallery.
It’s not streaming on Netflix unfortunately. But, trust me, this one is worth buying and owning outright!
If you saw Spike Lee’s Kickstarter-funded “Da Blood Of Jesus,” which is a remake of “Ganja & Hess,” you owe it to yourself to see the original! Even if you skipped Spike’s film, you should see Bill Gunn’s film.
Watch this short summary/review by M. Asli Dukan – producer and director of the feature length doc “Invisible Universe” (a project we’ve been following here on S&A) which explores the history of African American images in fantasy, horror and science fiction literature and film: