Even within the supposedly transgressive cinema of the 1970s, Bill Gunn (1934-1989) was relegated to the status of a marginalized figure. Gunn directed only three films: Stop (1970), which was never released; Ganja & Hess (1973), a vampire film which was retitled “Blood Couple” without Gunn’s approval and heavily recut by its distributors; and Personal Problems (1980), an experimental soap opera (shot on video) which was made for television but never aired on PBS, and which went unseen for nearly four decades until Kino Lorber restored it in 2018.
Ganja & Hess was selected and shown at Critics’ Week at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, but here in Gunn’s home country, it was treated condescendingly by critics, who lumped it together with a number of blaxploitation films from the era. The truth is that Ganja & Hess could hardly be further in its tone and appearance from blaxploitation; like Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), it is an art film that uses the spaces of genre to construct a kind of oneiric, sui generis vision. And like the more contemporaneous Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973), it is a horror film that borders on, and deserves to be discussed in relation to, the avant-garde cinema in terms of its restlessly innovative formal abstraction.
The first time I saw Ganja & Hess, I was reminded of something that the Portuguese critic and programmer João Bénard da Costa once wrote about Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954): “It is a film full of light and heat, which went against the ‘noir cinema’ that predominated at the time.” Unlike most vampiric cinema, which so often seems indebted to the chilly, shadowy aesthetics of F.W. Murnau’s foundational text Nosferatu (1922), Ganja & Hess is, indeed, committed to the creation of a more stifling, hothouse atmosphere, replete with sweaty bodies and an intense carnality. It’s also a film in which the way light is used within the composition creates ravishing photographic textures — this is primarily what I mean by comparing the film to Bava’s Lisa and the Devil — as if Gunn was consciously working through the more kinetic qualities of the film image that his American contemporaries Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger were also experimenting with around the same time.
The archetypal Nosferatu/Count Dracula figure here is represented by Dr. Hess Green, played by the very sexy Duane Jones, a talented actor whose only other starring role was as the lead in George A. Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead (1968). As in other vampire narratives, the condition of vampirism here becomes linked both to a kind of primordial, earthly evil — Hess is infected after being stabbed with an ancient dagger by his assistant (played by Gunn himself, a wonderful actor in his own right) — as well as a form of undying, pervasive sexuality. Ganja & Hess is also a love film in the grand cinematic tradition of l’amour fou: Ganja (Marlene Clark), the widow of the assistant, agrees to marry Hess and inevitably comes to bear the burden of what a life with him might mean for her. Toward the end of the film, Gunn taps into the age-old notion of vampires being killed with crosses by forming a strange and potent dialectic between the couple’s vampirism and American Black Christianity. This is a film that’s truly brimming with ideas, both at the level of performance as well as image.
I was lucky enough to see the restoration of Gunn’s subsequent soap opera Personal Problems when IU Cinema screened it in October of 2018. It’s a work that might be more reasonably compared to the contemporary work of Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry in its unflinching examination of a working-class Black community in the United States, though, like Ganja & Hess, it’s also a film that should be seen as boldly experimental in the depth and beauty of its textures — except this time around, Gunn was experimenting with video aesthetics rather than film aesthetics. It seems that now, decades after his activity as a filmmaker ended, Gunn has finally found his place in the collective consciousness of critics and moviegoers alike, and given his staggering achievements in the medium, this is richly deserved.
Ganja & Hess is being presented in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room from March 3–17 as part of our 10th anniversary series 10 Years, 10 Films, 10 Perspectives. You will be able to stream the film to the device of your choosing via a link and password which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and password.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.