The vampire as a symbol in horror films has evolved throughout the years, with each decade’s take on the fanged menace moving from representing the fear of the foreigner to the power of illicit sex. The 1980s vampire’s lust for blood came to embody its own brand of horror: AIDS, and specifically the increasing belief that AIDS was “the gay plague.” Tony Scott’s The Hunger was one of the first vampire films to burst out of the gate with explicit same sex sexuality and bloodlust long before The Lost Boys (1987) and Interview With the Vampire (1994). Scott, showing typical Scott-isms, ends up turning a compelling vampire love triangle movie into an ill-paced, yet beautifully composed, series of rapid editing and a wandering eye, that happens to contain some great performances.
Miriam and John Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) have been a couple for thousands of years, their immortality aided by Miriam’s vampirism. But when Miriam tires of John he starts aging rapidly. Desperate for a new companion Miriam sets her sights on Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a doctor studying the effects of aging.
Tony Scott’s directorial debut certainly introduces all the elements we’d come to love (and hate) about Scott’s filmmaking. The Hunger, just a taste over 90 minutes, revels in Scott’s commercial and music video aesthetics of rapid-fire intercutting of people looking out windows while flashing back, loud noises smothering the audio soundtrack, and lingering shots of characters doing nothing.
Our introduction to John and Miriam, in a dark nightclub with Bauhaus performing, leaves you wondering if these are vampires or just people auditioning for a Cure video. In fact, much of The Hunger leaves you wondering if you’re watching an incredibly long ’80s music video, complete with fog, gauzy curtains, and rollerblading. When is White Snake gonna drive through with Tawny Kitaen?
John and Miriam aren’t the typical overly moussed vamps the 1980s and 1990s would showcase. When you’re played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, there’s no reason to cover up perfection. With that, the symbolism in their presence isn’t smothered with ’80s theatrics or ’90s period costumes. The hunger of the title refers to vampiric bloodlust, but also treats vampirism as an addiction on par with heroin or nicotine. The latter vice leads to several moments of near-death incidents involving cigarettes, particularly Sarah almost being mowed down by a semi. Apparently it’s hard to walk and light up. These moments are corny, turning the whole film into one big Truth ad.
Sarah’s descent into vampirism creates several allusions to drug addiction, some subtler than others. As Sarah calls her boyfriend – her eyes ringed by dark circles and dripping sweat – a random stranger calls her a “junkie.” The rise of drugs in the 1980s, specifically crack cocaine, creates an obvious parallel, aided by Miriam’s belief she can teach Sarah how to feed the right way. The ever present allusion to AIDS, while not nearly as overt as the drug connection, also remains present but it’s not the predominant focus. Unfortunately, Sarah’s addiction lasts all of about twenty minutes, never properly promoting itself as something to fear. We never see Sarah hit bottom, so to speak, and when she does kill someone, someone who presumably meant something to her, Scott never shows us her reaction. If this is meant to be an allegory of some kind, there’s no meaning or context to it. Are we supposed to empathize with Sarah? Hate her? Based on the ending, we’re just left feeling nothing.
Much of that could be due to the studio’s demand for a happier ending, leaving our villain to be punished in a way that makes little sense, and leaving things rather upbeat. Think of an Intervention episode where the subject gets help before the actual intervention. However, I doubt the ending would have fixed the script, which doesn’t give any background outside of gorgeous period-esque flashbacks. Miriam and John are shown together for about half the movie before John is thrown aside. It’s inferred that the absence of Miriam’s love causes her lovers to die while she selfishly keeps them decaying in the basement. But that’s all for our history or “rules” of how vampirism plays out in the film. Sarah’s background is even fuzzier. She’s working on a study regarding aging and has a boyfriend, that’s it. What happens to her study and work with the way the ending plays out?
Who cares, it all looks pretty! And let’s not forget the child murdered by John in the middle of the film. A detective shows up and interrogates Miriam for a scene and disappears only to return in the end when everything’s said and done. Either he’s the most inept cop or the film just doesn’t care about the mystery. The total absence of time plays into things. What sounds like a couple of days passing feels like weeks.
But what do you expect from Tony Scott, particularly since he’s starting out. Denueve, Bowie and Sarandon are gorgeous and he wants to show them doing beautiful, blood-soaked things. Think of the volleyball scene in Top Gun, but with fangs! It’s actually sad the film isn’t longer so as to give the amazing cast time to emote. Denueve and Sarandon are fantastic together and their highly touted lesbian sex scene is beautifully shot without being exploitative.
Deneuve tries something completely different from her previous roles, and not only is she utterly captivating, but Miriam leaves you sympathetic to her while simultaneously hating her. Deneuve tries creating emotion and history into a character that’s a blank slate, and I’d watch nothing but her being a vampire. Sarandon’s the babe in the woods as Sarah, and she’s at her best opposite the experience Deneuve. Bowie plays third fiddle as the rapidly deteriorating John, getting the shortest shrift of the cast. He’s got a good moment due his character’s last gasp for survival, but in a film where the characters’ lives are already opaque, Bowie’s a near invisible third wheel.
Maybe in 1983 The Hunger was progressive, it certainly gives a new twist on the vampire tale with its connections to drug addiction and openly acknowledging same sex romance within the vampire genre. But with a cast of such heavy hitters, simply swathing them in gauze and Ankh pendants isn’t enough. Scott hit his stride eventually, and The Hunger is definitely his most esoteric film in his canon, but we need a bit more flesh to chew down on. The film just received the Blu-ray treatment from Warner Archive, so if you’re interested in watching Scott try something new earlier in his career, or just want to bask in the beauty of Catherine Deneuve, give it a view.