Movies: An Appreciation of The Hunger (1983)

I have to admit that, as a rule, I’ve kinda been over vampires for a really long time. Like all self-respecting darklings, of course, I was all about Anne Rice back in the day (that day being the 80s), and my first (terrible, unpublished) novel was actually a painfully angsty vampire love story along those same lines. If only I had known that years later, someone would write Twilight and make all the money in the world, I might not have been so quick to shame-toss my manuscript in the garbage, but on such lack of foresight doth the vagaries of fate turn, or something.

On the other hand, though, as an unrepentant goth chick for more than three decades, I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t be seduced by a genuinely great vampire film, especially if it was stylish as fuck, starred three of the best-looking people on the planet at the time, and boasted an opening scene featuring one of my favorite bands performing the granddaddy of all goth-rock anthems. By now you should have guessed that I’m talking about the gothic wet dream known as The Hunger.

Tony Scott’s film (loosely based on an okay novel by Whitley “I Was Anal Probed by Extraterrestrials” Strieber) has been dogged by criticisms of style over substance pretty much since its release in 1983, but in my opinion, time has been very kind to it, and I would happily defend it as one of the very best vampire films of the 80s. Not only is it gorgeous to look at and chock full of fantastic acting performances, but it also took the tired vampire schtick and did something fairly original and arty with it (though of course much of the concept of interpreting vampire tropes through the lens of modern genetic science was present in Strieber’s book).

The Hunger is the story of beautiful, centuries-old vampire Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her understandable but ultimately cruelly selfish quest to find a companion who will be with her forever. Her latest consort, John (David Bowie) has been with her for two hundred years, but John soon learns that Miriam’s promises of eternal youth were a lie when he begins to rapidly age, due to an apparent incompatibility between human and vampire blood that takes centuries to manifest.

John and Miriam enlist the services of cutting-edge gerontologist Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) in an attempt to reverse the aging process, but it’s all to no avail. After the feeble John kills the couple’s young music student, hoping that her blood will revitalize him, Miriam tenderly carries his still-living but disintegrating carcass into the attic. There she places him in a coffin along with her other former lovers, all of whom are enduring the same living death. It is this aspect of Miriam’s character that makes her monstrous: she is so desperate for companionship that she will strategically neglect to mention that the vampire gift she is bestowing comes with eternal life, yes, but not eternal youth. She will also keep her lovers alive and with her forever, even though they are suffering terribly, trapped in their disintegrating bodies.

Grief-stricken and lonely after John’s confinement, Miriam then sets her sights on Sarah and begins to groom her as her next companion. The pair exchange blood during a languid, gauzy, and super-hot sex scene, but Sarah discovers soon enough what Miriam’s gift entails. At first she refuses to accept her new blood-drinking nature, preferring to starve herself of the sustaining red stuff, but eventually her willpower fails her and she ends up killing her boyfriend Tom and feeding on him. Miriam thinks that Sarah is now on board with the whole vampire thing, but Sarah’s steely resolve is such that she attempts to cut her own throat with Miriam’s purpose-made ankh pendant rather than spend the next few hundred years at the vampire’s side. The distraught Miriam attempts to save her, but evidently Sarah’s attempted self-sacrifice has rallied the troops, so to speak; all of Miriam’s rotting former lovers rise from their coffins, kill Miriam, and fall to dust upon the floor, finally finding the sweet release of death that they had been denied for so long.

There is then an odd coda to the film that doesn’t really make any sense in terms of the story, as we see briefly that Sarah has survived her suicide attempt and is now living as a vampire with a male and female consort of her own. Susan Sarandon has reported that she was not happy with this tacked-on ending, as it negated the whole arc of her character and the point of her rebellion, but there was little she could do about it, since the producers apparently wished to leave the film open-ended in case they wanted to make a sequel down the line (which of course they never did). The scene is only a few seconds long and doesn’t spoil the film, but it is kind of a WTF moment.

All that aside, though, let me take a moment to rhapsodize about all the great things this film does. Casting the impossibly beautiful and elegant Deneuve as a vampire was a stroke of genius, as her quiet gravitas and cold yet seductive grace lend a sense of timelessness to her portrayal that makes it very easy to believe, not only that she has been alive for millennia, but also that she could easily embody the conflict of genuine loving feeling existing alongside such fiendish cruelty. Susan Sarandon’s character is a perfect counterpoint, a thoroughly modern woman whose pragmatism and independence is the polar opposite of Miriam’s needy heartlessness.

Bowie is likewise great as the doomed companion, putting in a restrained and perfectly balanced performance in which the struggle between his deep love for Miriam and his anger at her betrayal of him are readily apparent.

The set design is also gorgeous, soft-focused and romantic, with billowing white curtains, shafts of dim light illuminating flocks of doves, and the spectacularly old-world interiors of the Blaylocks’ tastefully appointed New York townhouse brilliantly contrasted against the sterile environment of Sarah’s medical clinic. I’ve heard many people complain that The Hunger looked more like a music video than a movie, and I understand that assessment, but I feel as though the entire look of the film is a crucial part of its enduring charm. Its aesthetic flair was certainly one of the things that first drew me to it in the 1980s, and to be frank I think it looks even better now that we’ve had more than thirty years’ perspective on it.

The fact that the film also has such a dynamite opening, with the vampiric Peter Murphy in a cage intoning “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” with his band Bauhaus, is simply the pitch-black icing on the darkly glamorous cake that is this movie.

Unlike many other vampire films of the period, The Hunger is more concerned with artistic visuals and exploring the relationships of the characters than it is with outright horror or gore. That’s not to say that there aren’t some intensely bloody scenes, and the final shots of Miriam’s ancient, skeletal companions rising up against her are fairly horrific, but fans of more in-your-face horror may find the film far too cerebral for their tastes, and that’s as it should be. Different strokes, and all that.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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