Pioneering, iconoclastic filmmaker Bill Gunn is likely best known for his 1973 allegorical cinema classic that revolutionized the vampire genre Ganja & Hess - a film that was effectively suppressed in the United States because it wasn't the Hollywood horror movie that its producers had commissioned the artist 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.
"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," the late Gunn (who died on April 5, 1989) is said to have shared with a confidant.
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, Ganja & Hess 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.
Sadly, Gunn entered the business at a time when enterprising black filmmakers like himself 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.
A true artist with a radical vision expressed across multiple creative fields including as an actor, a playwright, an author and, of course, as a director, Gunn's other notable filmmaker credits include penning the script for Hal Ashby's The Landlord (1970) and teaming up with noted writer Ishmael Reed for what the latter described as “a look at the triteness of everyday life in black middle class America.” The result was a subversion of the soap opera, titled Personal Problems (1980), a film that's remained criminally unseen in its original form since its premiere (when it has screened, it's been from poor quality originals).
And after decades being mostly forgotten in the annals of cinema history, Personal Problems was discovered by new audiences (and rediscovered by those already familiar) after Kino Lorber lovingly restored the full-length version of the masterful ensemble drama (all 164 minutes of it), which opened at the Metrograph theater in New York City (its first proper release), earlier this year on March 30.
Kino Lorber is now doing the same with Gunn's highly stylized, revolutionary Ganja & Hess, a film that flirts with the conventions of blaxploitation and horror cinema. An original treatise on sex, religion and African-American identity, the film stars Duane Jones as anthropologist Hess Green, who is stabbed with an ancient ceremonial dagger by his unstable assistant (played by director Bill Gunn), endowing him with the blessing of immortality and the curse of an unquenchable thirst for blood. When the assistant’s beautiful and outspoken wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes searching for her vanished husband, she and Hess form an unexpected partnership. Together, they explore just how much power there is in the blood.
Mabel King, Leonard Jackson and Sam Waymon round out the key cast.
Later recut and released in an inferior version, this new edition of the film to be released by Kino Lorber represents the original release, restored by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Film Foundation and mastered in HD from a 35mm negative.
Kino Lorber will open this restoration of Ganja & Hess on May 30, 2018, also at Metrograph theater in New York City for an exclusive one-week run. It will be followed by stops in Cleveland, OH; San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; Chicago, IL; and more. Visit Kino's website for playdates.
Ahead of the film's May 30 Metrograph premiere, Shadow and Act has been granted an exclusive first look at its stylish new trailer and poster (representing the restoration of the original release).
First, the trailer, followed by the vivid poster, which was designed by Dylan Haley.