Synopsis: Miriam Blaylock collects Renaissance art, ancient Egyptian pendants, lovers, souls. Alive and fashionably chic in Manhattan, Miriam is an ageless vampire. “Vampire” is not a word you’ll hear in this movie based on the novel by Whitley Strieber (Wolfen). Instead, debuting feature director Tony Scott stakes out a hip, sensual, modern-gothic makeover. Catherine Deneuve radiates macabre elegance as Miriam, bless with beauty, cursed with bloodlust. David Bowie is fellow fiend and refined husband John. In love, in life, in longing they are inseparable. But when John abruptly begins to age and turns to a geriatrics researcher (Susan Sarandon) for help, Miriam soon eyes the woman as a replacement for John. The Hunger is insatiable.
The Hunger 7.25
eyelights: David Bowie. Catherine Deneuve vs Susan Sarandon. its unique take on vampirism. its visual flair. its soundtrack.
eyesores: Catherine Deneuve’s performance. its muddled narrative.
“Forever? Forever and ever?”
Catherine Deneuve. David Bowie. Susan Sarandon. How could a movie with these three actors not pique one’s curiosity – especially if it’s called ‘The Hunger’? And so it was that I picked it up one day from my local library’s vast collection of laserdiscs (remember those?).
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
‘The Hunger’ is Tony Scott’s debut motion picture. Released in 1983, and based on the 1981 Whitley Strieber novel, it tells the story of a 6000-year-old vampire whose 300-year-old partner is at the tail end of his lifespan. It’s a tale of love, desire, addiction and death.
It’s a vampire film like none other.
For starters, its approach to vampirism is quite different from the typical East European type: there is no sensitivity to sunlight, no aversion to garlic, no fear of religious symbols, …etc. Here the vampire is merely a powerful immortal who lives a quiet existence.
Until she has to feed, that is.
Once a week, she and her partner seek out victims, take them home, stab them with a small blade concealed in their ankh pendants and drink from their jugulars. When they’re done, they burn the bodies in a disposal unit in the basement of their large New York mansion.
In ‘The Hunger’, they are never referred to as vampires. In fact, the only subtle reference are some track marks on Dr. Sarah Roberts’ left arm after she has an erotic encounter with Miriam Blaylock. These look vaguely like the puncture marks of a vampire’s fangs.
If anything, vampirism here is analogous to addiction, with Blaylock as the pusher and her partner as the junkie. After she becomes infected, Roberts confronts and rejects Blaylock. She’s coldly told that, when the pain becomes too great, she’ll have to return to feed.
Blaylock will show her how.
Naturally, Roberts has no choice. The infection is taking her over and she finds herself in the throes of violent nausea, cold sweats and physical pain. The sight of her curled up on the floor is reminiscent of heroin addicts suffering the effects of withdrawal.
Susan Sarandon, who plays Dr. Roberts, says that the theme of the picture is “Would you want to live forever if you were an addict?”. ‘The Hunger’ suggests that some people would choose addiction over death, as John Blaylock and Miriam’s previous lovers have done.
What makes ‘The Hunger’ especially interesting is the degeneration of Miriam’s partners, which hits them suddenly and unfolds at a rapid pace. It’s explicitly paralleled with progeria, as Dr. Roberts’ research on apes plays in tandem with John Blaylock’s decrepitude.
It’s once again an unusual approach to vampirism, as we don’t typically think of them in mortal terms. What it suggests is that the lead vampire is immortal, but that her partners, who are originally human, have a limited lifespan – no matter what she tells them.
Miriam seduces her future partners and does so with Dr. Roberts, in a sexy scene that grafts itself onto one’s memory. It’s contrived, it’s completely gratuitous, but who wouldn’t want to see Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon getting it on? Or Deneuve and Bowie?
In fact, Sarandon admitted that she had the seduction scene changed, feeling that Dr. Roberts would choose to have sex with Ms. Blaylock: “you wouldn’t have to get drunk to bed Catherine Deneuve, I don’t care what your sexual history to that point had been”.
- Catherine Deneuve is an excellent ice queen and, in this respect, she’s the perfect Miriam: she has lived for so long that she’s hardened to the realities of her life. But Deneuve somehow feels alien, out of place. This may have been intentional, as the novel suggests that she may not be from Earth, but I really wasn’t taken with her like I usually am.
- David Bowie is always mesmerizing, and his performance is the picture’s anchor. Though his aging make-up isn’t always convincing, he mostly is – the key exception being that, after a day’s aging, he still walks like a young man. Not sure about that, even if he is part-vampire. But he adeptly illustrated John’s coming to terms with his oncoming death.
- Susan Sarandon has a lithe, catlike sexiness here, but she’s overshadowed by the enigmatic qualities of Deneuve and Bowie. Had Deneuve been more on top of her game, Sarandon would have been completely out of her depth. But she’s nonetheless very watchable here nonetheless. And it goes without saying that she’s done much finer work since.
The picture is a stylish, elegant-looking film, which is why the vampirism scenes are as shocking: Miriam and John live in a five-story house with high ceilings, tall doors, marble floors, columns and even an elevator. It’s exquisite, though a bit dated stylistically.
The music accentuates this upper class vibe, deftly mixing classical piano and string compositions with creepy synth and industrial atmospherics. It’s the perfect partnership to capture the tone of the piece. It’s become one of my favourite motion picture scores.
Also of note is the opening number, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, by Bauhaus. It was the first time I’d ever heard it and the 1982 live version is one of my all-time favourite songs. Watching Peter Murphy flailing in a cage as the band plays in a Goth club thrills me deeply.
It’s quite apparent that Tony Scott was a TV commercial director before making this film: for his debut, he tended to jump-cut all the time, making the picture a bit choppy at times – case-in-point the awkward cuts in Bauhaus’ music to footage of Miriam and John.
Strangely, this doesn’t make the film more exciting, even though it pops visually. ‘The Hunger’ suffers from a surprising languor considering its subject matter. And it’s not always coherent, as though Scott struggled with the narrative and used cuts as a diversion.
The worst of it is the ending, which was apparently imposed on the picture by the studio, who decided that they were going to try to keep it open-ended so as to make sequels. This never happened, of course, and we’re left with a somewhat nonsensical finale.
Still, Tony Scott did make the picture aesthetically-pleasing, and most of the shots are carefully composed and brilliantly executed. They just don’t always come together neatly as a cohesive whole; making 30-sec TV spots isn’t the same thing a a 90-min movie.
In any event, ‘The Hunger’ stands out. It’s not a great film by any means, but it had a lot of the right ingredients. And, in a genre that’s famously inconsistent, it’s a pleasure to see vampirism served up differently, with style and an attempt at substance.
It’s no wonder that it’s a cult classic.
Date of viewing: July 22, 2017