"The Hunger": A Feast for the Eyes, Not Much for the Brain (Neon Cinema)
in 1983, Tony Scott whipped up a delectable dish of a vampire flick in The Hunger, which he dropped onto the plates of hungry horror fans everywhere. The movie brought a bold new twist on the tired old vampire mythos of the time— The Hunger was new-wave sexy, eclectic, and oddly original. It was also incredibly riveting, so of course it was doomed to fail. The Hunger cost a little over $10 million to bring to screens, which is almost exactly what it made in theaters. The movie did, however, achieve cult status on cable television, and went on to become a benchmark of film-making for the era.
The Hunger stars Catherine Deneuve as Miriam Blaylock, an incredibly ancient vampire who is desperate to break a mystery that has plagued her for her entire afterlife. David Bowie plays John Blaylock, her thrall and lover of several centuries. Susan Sarandon rounds out the cast as Sarah, a sleep scientist that might hold the key to unlocking Miriam's quest.
The movie opens with Miriam and John on the hunt at a goth night club, which just happens to have the band Bauahaus performing Bela Lugosi's Dead on stage. Miriam picks out a couple that appears to be down with some group activities, and the foursome leaves for some elicit night-time action. Sadly for the goth couple, John and Miriam are only in it for their blood. With a flash of blades concealed in their Egyptian ankh shaped necklaces, throats are slit and blood is slurped. The bodies are disposed of in the vampire couple's furnace, and it's shower time!
Tony Scott employs just about every trick and technique that the '80s are now known for. The Hunger is a billowy, fluttering affair with a neon-pastel palette, plenty of slow motion pans, and long, languorous shots of Catherine Deneuve. Then again, this is Catherine Deneuve. She's stunning. Scott can be forgiven for getting a bit obsessive with his subject.
Miriam is thousands of years old, and part of a clan of vampires that originated in Egypt. These vampires aren't your typical fangs and opera capes types. They can survive full exposure to the sun, don't appear to have any super-strength, and don't have fangs. They are, however, immortal. Her consorts are also immortal, but they don't share her eternal youth. Miriam has spent centuries trying to find a way to reverse this, since her lovers tend to only manage to hold on to their youth for a few centuries at best. Then they are cursed to live out the rest of eternity as mummified shells of themselves, entombed in crates in Miriam's attic.
Sadly for John, his time is running out— and he doesn't know it. Each kill brings youth-restoring blood into his system, but he begins to age rapidly regardless. The make-up effects from Dick Smith are exceptional, as the vibrant, eternally youthful Bowie ages to a horrific husk of his once pristine beauty overnight.
John strikes out to find a cure, and that cure could come in the form of Doctor Sarah Roberts, who is an expert in Gerontology. Sarah thinks John is off his rocker, and rejects his pleas for help. John goes berserk and kills one of Miriam's proteges, which kicks off a game of cat and ageing mouse between the vampire and her consort.
Sarah shows up to the house and finds a greatly aged John, and a suddenly intrigued Miriam. Sarah's research might just hold the missing components to Miriam's quest, and what better way to sway the scientist to her cause than a little slow-motion, '80s style seduction?
John, for all his trouble, gets locked up in a box in the attic with all the rest of Miriam's cast-offs.
The Hunger hasn't exactly aged well, but it is a fascinating exploration of gender roles during the Age of Reagan. Sexuality is used as a weapon by most of the characters in The Hunger, especially Miriam. She's a terribly lonely character, and what initially comes off as stony indifference to the plight of her partners may have more to do with the pain of knowing that they are all doomed. She knows that she is resigning each and every one of her conquests to a nightmarish, eternal undeath, but the reality of living forever alone is more than she can bear.
The Hunger has a pretty meager run time, hitting only about an hour and a half in length. The movie could have been even shorter, but Tony Scott employed every art-house trick he could muster to make the film look like it had more substance than it really did. It's a lovely package, certainly, but under the wrapping is a tepid attempt at an erotic thriller shot with all the energy of an art-pop music video. The film attempts to be erotic at times, but comes across as a tepid Playboy shoot.
The music is an odd hybrid of classical music and erratic synthesizer stabs, which probably seemed really avaunt-guard at the time. Now, the soundscape of the movie does more to date it than anything else.
Still, The Hunger does have its merits. Deneuve is beautifully detached, and it's easy to see how she could have such an intense pull on her conquests. Bowie is celluloid sex come to life, and Sarandon brings her a-game to the party. The cinematography is stunning, even if it does seem a little trite in its execution— this may have more to do with a million music videos sharing the film's style than anything else.
A few things stick out at this point, though, nearly 40 years after the film's release. The Hunger was Tony Scott's first film as a director, and it feels like he's trying his damnedest to play catch up with his brother, Ridley. The film is incredibly stylish, and it's easy to see how studios were eager to sign him on to direct future film projects like Top Gun and Crimson Tide. Close to a decade after The Hunger, Scott found himself directing True Romance, a modern crime-noir thriller written by some unknown punk named Tarantino.
Willem Defoe has a short cameo at the beginning of the movie, where he can be seen menacing Sarah in a phone booth. It's a blink and you'll miss it scene, but it's fun to see how a career comes together.
Bowie's old-age makeup was really good, especially for this period of film making. The makeup was produced by Hollywood legend Dick Smith, and shows Bowie aging to decrepitude in a really short time. The appliances were incredibly believable, yet we'll never know how close Smith got to realizing how Bowie would really look in his old age due to the performer's untimely death. Still, the effect is masterfully produced. Smith also created the makeup effects for the finale of The Hunger, which saw Miriam beset by the withered husks of her former lovers. Somewhere in all of the billowing, gauzy drapes and fluttering doves there's an unsettling amount of undead making out going on.
While it might seem a bit quaint and antiquated by today's standards, The Hunger is still an entertaining look at the cinema of the 1980's, and an excellent introduction to the work of Tony Scott, who never received the accolades and fame of his older brother.
Neon Cinema is a weekly column at Bleeding Cool that aims to explore the hits and misses of one of the most unique eras of cinematic history, the 1980's. Well be exploring the hits, the misses, and everything in between. Here are the other segments, just in case you missed them:
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