Written by: Ian Davis & Michael Thomas (screenplay), Whitley Strieber (novel)
Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYou'll be back. When the hunger knows no reason! And then you'll need to feed, and you'll need me to show you how."
Some directors take some time to find both their footing and their voice, especially when they debut with something like a horror film, an unfairly maligned genre thatís often treated as grunt work by studios. But not Tony Scott, whose 1983 effort saw him explode onto the scene with aplomb. While itís hard to say that he emerged fully formed from the world of commercial film-making, itís even harder to say that many of his signature sensibilities arenít on display within the opening minutes of The Hunger. Set to the pulsing rhythms of Bauhausís super-appropriate ďBela Lugosi is Dead,Ē the opening sequence is not only an overture for the revisionist vampire film, but also for Scottís career: itís a bombastic, bold montage that emphatically shovels dirt over traditional vampire lore, all the while signaling the pop-addled, music video approach that Scott would patent over the next three decades.
What follows is one of the 80sí earliest attempts at deconstructing the vampire by grounding it into the modern age: Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her lover, John (David Bowie), are a couple of New York yuppies posing as music instructors. In reality, theyíre an immortal vampire duo looking to feed on unsuspecting targetsóor so John thinks. It turns out that heís merely been leeching off of Miriamís blood for the past few centuries and unnaturally prolonging his life in the process, and his loverís promises of eternal life are hollow. Horrified, he seeks the assistance of Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a doctor specializing in the study of aging. Theirs is a fateful encounter that unwittingly ends Sarah into the armsóand fangsóof Miriam, who needs a new lover to replace John after heís reduced to a glorified mummy.
Upon release back in 1983, critics saddled The Hunger with a tag that would haunt most of Scottís career: ďstyle over substance,Ē they said, and Iím not going to go so far as to say they were completely wrong. However, to dismiss the film in such a fashion is to ignore the very pertinent and contextual horrors informing it. Looking back on it thirty years later, itís a work that feels clearly defined by the burgeoning paranoia surrounding AIDS; much like Cronenbergís The Fly, though, it also digs deeper than that to tap into the universal fears of aging. Most vampire films explore the horrors of immortality from an existential standpoint, but the terror is made unsettlingly visceral in The Hunger, as Miriamís lovers deteriorate into mummified husks that find themselves locked away like some kind of insect collection once sheís through with them. Itís the setup for a great, nightmarish moment later on, but thereís a more quietly disturbing moment early in the film that finds John slowly aging while waiting for Sarah in a waiting room. Itís almost surprising to see Scott play the scene so subtly given his stylistic tendencies, but its unnerving inevitability breeds a different, more natural form of body horror thatís only grown more horrific as weíve driven ourselves further into denial about aging. Weíre all nothing but a mortal coil, and The Hunger confronts the act of shedding it with an unflinching eye.
All that said, itís also difficult to ignore that the film is a big, overblown, slightly airless fetish chamber for Scottís aesthetics. Often taking the form of a feature length Dior commercial, The Hunger is probably just short of pompous, what with its billowing linens and smoky hazes. While this would become Scottís signature throughout his career, this one feels a little bit more mannered and art house than his later films. The Hunger never quite matches the thunderous propulsion from the opening number, and it hazily drifts along from there. Such an approach probably doesnít sound too appealing, but itís an appropriate one that makes The Hunger a logical successor to the dream-like narratives woven in Nosferatu and The Vampyr. Even though Scottís effort isnít nearly as monumental as these films, it is undeniably atmosphericóitís a total mood movie that thrives on its directorís overwhelming desire to style the hell out of the proceedings. Scottís precision is impeccable: each frame feels lavish and ornate, and some sequences are nearly sublime, such as Deneuve and Sarandonís infamously erotic love scene. Even the gory scenes feel exact and arty, with the victimsí bloods being splattered in a painterly fashion.
The Hunger often feels rather detached because of this, particularly since its characters and performances seem so distant. Bowie is easily the most empathetic of the bunch, and even he commits a rather heinous act; plus, heís hardly the center of the film once it shifts to Miriamís Carmilla style seduction of Sarah. Something about it is decidedly unsexy and frigid, though, which is surprising considering Scottís later work; this is one aspect he hadnít quite nailed down at this point, as he hadnít yet stepped out of his brotherís shadow. In fact, The Hunger feels very much like an early Ridley Scott movie in its cold, distant posturing. Deneuveís icy, stone-hearted turn is appropriate, but The Hunger lacks an emotional center to give its horrors true gravitas; if the film feels insubstantial in any way, itís here. The film is undeniably cool but not particularly moving.
Like his brother, Scott quickly learned the perils of working for an overbearing studio; just as Warner Brothers ruthlessly cut Ridleyís Blade Runner a year before, so too did MGM alter The Hunger with a tacked on epilogue that renders the film somewhat baffling. While itís not nearly as invasive and befuddling as the Blade Runner edits, itís a superfluous scene the undercuts the filmís themes and practically moots its climax (which Sarandon herself has been quick to note over the years). That The Hunger still succeeds in spite of this is a testament to Scottís technical acumen and grandiose vision for such an ostensibly small, intimate film. The film just feels monumental and robust for something that turns into another lesbian vampire riff.
That Scott inherited that mantle seems correct; as an Englishman, he picked up the thread that Hammer started a decade earlier with The Vampire Lovers and infused it with a dash of Rollin and Franco to boot. In many ways, The Hunger feels like an elaborate Eurotrash vampire movie thatís also being dragged into the 80s. The decade was rife with attempts to update and ground the vampire mythos into modern times; The Hunger arguably taps into the decadeís contemporary fears more effectively than later efforts, many of which were content to update the classic monster with more fashionable digs (Near Dark remains an exception in its consciously revisionist take on the vampire).
Iím not so sure I can make room at the podium for The Hunger since Bigelowís film, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night still reign supreme; itís perhaps not too far off, though, and hanging around somewhere like the Miss Congeniality of 80s vampire movies. Warner Brothers ended up with the filmís distribution rights and hasnít treated it with much fanfare over the years; the studio released it onto a solid DVD back in 2004, which featured a still gallery and a commentary with Sarandon and Scott. The presentation is impressive for standard-def, but The Hunger almost begs for a Blu-ray release. Hopefully that happens at some point since the film is due for a reevaluation; as always, itís intriguing to see the development of an auteur, and The Hunger provides plenty of evidence of Scottís genius, even if it isnít fully realized here. Buy it!
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