Halloween 2013 Countdown - Revisit Bill Gunn's Rarely-Screened Allegorical Classic 'Ganja & Hess'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
October 25, 2013 12:58 PM
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Read the first film profiled in this series (Night of the Living Dead) HERE if you missed it yesterday.

Another 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 film that revolutionized the vampire film - Ganja & Hess - was suppressed in the United States because it wasn't the Hollywood genre film that its producers had commissioned writer/director Bill Gunn to make. 

This was during the blaxploitation era, and the producers hoped to cash in on the euphoria with Ganja & Hess (what was to essentially be a black version of popular mainstream vampire films, likely inspired by what they 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 in 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 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 the type of work that was available to them, 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 5 years earlier - the first film profiled in this Halloween series yesterday HERE) and Marlene Clark (as Ganja Meda) who matches Jones' performance with poise. 

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 African American 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!

I can't help but wonder if Spike Lee's upcoming Da Blood Of Jesus, which he's said tells a story of blood addiction, but isn't about vampires, is in any way inspired by Ganja & Hess. Based on his description alone, connections between the two films are inevitable - that is, until we know more.

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:

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1 Comment

  • tolly devlin | November 1, 2013 8:59 PMReply

    Love this movie. Bill Gunn also wrote a very good novel, published by Ishmael Reed & probably long out of print, about black writers & directors in Hollywood entitled Rhinestone Sharecropping. He also wrote the play Black Picture Show.

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