by Lee Purvey
A contemporary viewing of The Hunger, the 1983 adaptation of Whitley Strieber's novel of the same name, is bound to suffer from the present-day omnipresence of the vampire on film. While the vampire trope has been around since the early years of cinema--and for a long time before that, of course--the recent deluge of (generally forgettable) works involving the supernatural creatures, ranging from the Hollywood blockbuster (Twilight, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) to the indie mood piece (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Let the Right One In) has made the myth about as cliched nowadays as found-footage horror or incidentally intersecting subplots (à la Iñárritu, Ritchie, Marshall). A modern day viewer’s expectations of the same old tricks are likely to be turned on their head, though, as the The Hunger is--for better or worse--a vividly original thing, in all its hyperkinetic audiovisual stylization and Gothic melodrama.
Director: Tony Scott
Producer: Richard Shepherd
Writers: Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas, Whitley Strieber (novel)
Cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt
Editor: Pamela Power
Music: Denny Jaeger, Michel Rubini
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Suzanne Bertish, James Aubrey
US Theatrical Release: April 29, 1983
US Distributor: MGM/United Artists
The Hunger (directed by Tony Scott from a screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas) cuts right to the chase, as Miriam and John Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) pick up a couple at a New York club, where British group Bauhaus perform their song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Having returned with the pair to their plush, sparsely-lit apartment, as the clattering industrial soundtrack gains decibels and the picture intersperses quickly accelerating images of Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy and a (at this point decontextualized) monkey both generally flipping their shit, the Blaylocks seduce their hosts and then brutally murder them with ankh-shaped pendant daggers, presumably to feast on their blood.
As the sun rises on a new day, the pair return to their luxurious, shadowy apartment complex to dispose of their victims’ bodies in an incinerator. John, we soon learn, was once human until Miriam, a vampire, offered to grant him eternal life in exchange for his companionship; this union took place hundreds of years in the past, it appears, considering Deneuve’s poofy Marie Antoinette hair in a brief flashback. Miriam was only telling part of the truth, however, as John soon begins exhibiting signs of a sudden and debilitating aging process—one that has apparently afflicted all of Miriam’s past consorts eventually, the still-living bodies of whom she creepily stores in crates in her attic.
Coming more than two decades before the much talked about achievements of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, makeup artists Carl Fullerton and Dick Smith here perform that film’s accomplishment in reverse, as we watch John transform from a young man to a wheezing walking cadaver over a matter of hours. Hoping to halt this transformation, both Miriam and John separately visit a doctor named Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who is conducting primate studies (hence the monkey) in the hope of identifying a cure for progeria, a real-life genetic disorder that results in the premature and accelerated appearance of aging symptoms and eventually death. This possibility is left mostly unexplored, though, as the film quickly jumps tracks from pseudo-science thriller into much weirder erotic territory.
The vampire genre is no stranger to sexual themes and The Hunger leaves absolutely no question about the association. The second half of the film is dedicated to Miriam’s increasingly aggressive efforts to seduce Sarah, a plotline that for a while really works, as sexual desire mingles with a budding taste for blood into an overwhelming, confusing mess of emotion and instinct. There are some great moments as Sarah teeters on the precipice of an eternal life of anonymity and murder—a jazzy scene in which two characters dance around one’s recent infidelity over rare steaks stands out especially. But all too frequently, The Hunger’s sexual themes are given the same overwrought treatment as its drama (the most flagrant example being an honest to goodness oops-I-spilled-sherry-on-my-blouse moment that I simply can’t find words to even comment on).
Which brings us to the film’s central conundrum.
Following The Hunger, his commercial feature debut, Scott built a career on the blockbuster. With an oeuvre dotted with the likes of Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire, and any number of other broadly painted action hits, the late director’s work was more typically defined by commercial success than critical acclaim, more by consistent entertainment than auteurist exploration. And this is part of what makes Scott’s audaciously wacky vampire film so interesting.
While the gritty violence and gratuitous non-normative sex may in some ways set this work apart from the more mainstream offerings that followed, what is really unique about The Hunger within Scott’s filmography is its experimental, expressionist style.
Scott and editor Pamela Power’s work during post-production is of particular note, as scenes become layered over each other according to either striking parallels or stark divergences in theme (Darren Aronofsky did a similar thing in Requiem for a Dream—only 17 years later). This technique is nicely complemented by director of photography Stephen Goldblatt’s visual palette and lighting work, which draw out the shadowy, subterranean quality not only of the Blaylocks’ eerie apartment (which feels straight out of a Tim Burton film) but in more neutral public spaces, like the hospital where Sarah works or the streets of Manhattan. But these effective (if sometimes a little dated) cinematic tricks fall flat on a painfully half-baked and clumsily executed story.
If The Hunger is one thing, it is—like most of Scott’s movies—big. Big sound, big lighting, big emotions. Over its 96 minutes, many dramatic, loud, emotive things happen, but they do so largely apart from any real sense of narrative progress or thematic or emotional coherence. They’re stylish, sure, but completely ridiculous, and Deneuve and Bowie’s practiced placidity does little to inject a sense of dramatic urgency into things (for her part, Sarandon’s wide-eyed incredulity feels appropriate, but probably not for the reasons she intended). At the same time, The Hunger’s failings never quite reach the point where they become truly funny, as in so many still-watched but indisputably poor horror movies, vampiric and otherwise.
The critical point of tension, then, at the heart of Scott’s film is in what way it will be big—so big it’s bad (and revered and remembered by the cult following it still in some ways deserves) or so big it sells (as perhaps Scott—and undoubtedly the studios—hoped it would be). The film never seems to make up its mind. A slick, effective production of a tepid idea, The Hunger falls somewhere between amateur drama and camp that’s a little too good to be fun.