The Hunger (1983)
Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Suzanne Bertish, James Aubrey
(out of 4)
Sitting in the waiting room…Because he can’t get up
Until it falls apart at the end, Tony Scott’s first feature The Hunger (based on the book by Whitley Strieber) is an atmospheric, low key chiller that shows off the late director’s artistic sensibilities before he put them aside to create more straightforward, crowd-pleasing fare like Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, etc. But if you look closely at The Hunger, you’ll see the kind of mise-en-scène not that far removed from brother Ridley’s Blade Runner, which came out a year earlier. Of course, Tony Scott had been doing commercials before being hired for The Hunger, so some of that quick-cut, strobe-lit style is evident, but the man knew how to direct. What he gives us with The Hunger is a moody, fascinating attempt to modernize the vampire myth – bringing it into the big city (and the 1980s) – with mostly successful results. That there’s an erotic love scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve doesn’t hurt.
Besides being (in)famous for that aforementioned lesbian sex scene (which seen through today’s eyes isn’t that explicit), The Hunger might best be remembered for the effective beginning sequence that takes place in a goth club, while a man dances behind a cage to Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus (yes, that man in the opening is indeed Peter Murphy). An unsuspecting couple is taken home by Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve) and her husband John (David Bowie) for a little hanky panky that ends in some bloody ankh-necklaces being thrown into a sink (and they have hidden daggers), and body parts in a garbage bag being thrown into an incinerator. Miriam is a 2,000 year old vampire who “made” John, but like her previous lovers, John has now started rapidly aging. (No explanation is given for Bowie’s “accelerated decrepitude,” to use a Blade Runner reference. You just have to accept that this is what eventually happens to Miriam’s significant others).
She pre-chews his food for him – now that’s love!
The first half of The Hunger removes most supernatural elements from vampirism (not all) and gives it some Old World charm (French actress Catherine Deneuve brings sophistication and mystique to her role). The word “vampire” isn’t even mentioned, there are no fangs, and daylight doesn’t seem to be a problem. There’s actually something of George Romero’s Martin in it, with attempts to infuse the legend with more realism (a weapon must be used to draw blood before the feeding, for example). Vampirism is treated as an disease here, as when poor Dr. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon) is infected and subsequently informed that a foreign strain of blood coursing through her veins is fighting for dominance. But I’m getting ahead of myself – first we must follow poor John as he reaches out to Sarah for help with his aging problem (Sarah is a specialist who studies premature aging) but she dismisses him as a crank (a great scene has John sitting in a waiting room for hours as he rapidly ages – how many of us have sat in the waiting room and felt the same?)
The second half of The Hunger sees John damned to spend eternity as an old corpse (but still undead) in a casket in Miriam’s attic, alongside all her other past lovers. It is here where Miriam’s seduction of Sarah begins, and a love scene ends with Sarah infected and exhibiting signs of a junkie who needs her fix. AIDS was brand new in 1983, but the STD-angle is apparent, as is the subtext of drug addiction. (Sarandon would comment on her role in The Hunger later on, asking the question: if you could live forever, would you still do it if you knew you would be an addict?) At its core, though, the film is really about fear of aging and loss of youth. The aging effects on Bowie (done masterfully by Dick Smith) are great and through his condition, there’s real sadness and loss being communicated here. Miriam’s fear of aging herself also hangs there, and she must keep her unfortunate lovers tucked away out of her sight, even as she can’t bear to part with any them.
Their cycles synced up.
The lesbian angle recalls earlier genre efforts like Daughters of Darkness, The Vampire Lovers, Vampyros Lesbos, and of course, Carmilla. I never really got the impression that The Hunger was making any particular statement about homosexuality though – I think it’s treated matter-of-factly and that the gender of the person being pursued by Miriam didn’t really matter. She’s a vampire who has moved beyond gender; this is a matter of loneliness and immortality. The ending gets away from Scott, though – things go down the Maniac route (of all things!) And the epilogue apparently only exists because the studio wanted to leave the door open for a sequel (the film’s poor reception guaranteed that wouldn’t happen, although there is a planned remake). But until things get silly and illogical near the end, The Hunger manages to be intriguing and beautiful to look at (and it has a gorgeous soundtrack to match – Bauhaus, Howard Blake, Schubert, Delibes). It’s a good example of style over substance, but that doesn’t mean some substance isn’t there. The Hunger satisfies; I wish that Tony Scott had made more films like it.
– Bill Gordon
Buy The Hunger on DVD
Bonus Sighting: Watch for Willem Dafoe in a bit part.