The Hunger. 1983. Directed by Tony Scott. Screenplay by Ivan Davis & Michael Thomas; based on the novel of the same name by Whitley Strieber.
Starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Suzanne Bertish, Shane Rimmer, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe, & Peter Murphy with Bauhaus.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
Dearly departed Tony Scott came onto the scene with a dark, flashy feature debut (having previously directed a 57-minute film called Loving Memory and a couple shorts), which announced him as a visionary filmmaker alongside his equally, if not more talented brother Ridley. Although Tony went on to define what some call the MTV-style of filmmaking – using quick edited action, often giving his stories a fast pace, as well as relying on a technique from his experience as a painter called chiaroscuro – he secured his legacy as an immense talent with 1983’s The Hunger.
Based on the novel by Whitley Strieber (also wrote Wolfen and Communion), Scott presents us with a story about vampires, although not the typical genre picture we might expect. In this film we look at vampirism in a more practical, reality-based way; maybe not at every moment, but certainly it’s a large and prominent theme. Strieber’s main ideas stay in tact, while some is changed to fit the mould of what Scott was hoping to accomplish. Mainly, the idea of eternal life and eternal youth as two distinctly different things is a large part of the screenplay, which also plays into vampirism, in this form, as a quest for vanity.
With style and a proper helping of eroticism and blood, The Hunger gnashes its way by the teeth into that upper echelon, the pantheon of great vampire movies. And it isn’t only the talent of Scott on which this film rides. Certainly doesn’t hurt to have the trio of lead characters played by Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon. Nor was it a mistake for Scott to use legendary makeup and effects artists Dick Smith to make the blood and the vampires and the various macabre pieces look wonderfully gruesome. You’ll be hard pressed to find any fit to trim off this flick.
If I had to choose, The Hunger just might be number one on my list for the greatest opening sequences of all time. Honestly. Scott almost sat thinking to himself, wondering how he could possibly open his first feature with a potent impact. So, he went and found Bauhaus playing in some little club, got them on board, and blew everybody’s tits off! “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” plays while Peter Murphy, the god himself sings with the band caged behind black chain-link fence. Miriam and John Blaylock (Deneuve & Bowie) scan the crowd, looking for victims. Then everything breaks into absolute chaos once the couple take home their latest prey; an unsuspecting couple ready for a night of hot sex with a pair of swingers. Instead it’s blood and mayhem. Not only that, Scott switches between this scene and a primate going completely mental – what he effectively does at the end with that intercutting of images is put vampirism next to science, which is a way to try and rationalise being a vampire; one of the story’s major thematic focuses throughout the plot.
When Scott gets into things he wants to ask about what happens when you figure out eternal life doesn’t necessarily mean eternal youth? Or what if you want to stop being a vampire? If you have to be one, then how do you feed? Where do you dispose of bodies so the police don’t keep sniffing around? Well, these are all things the film tries answering, at least in slivers. After John starts ageing, he discovers there’s no eternal youth for him. Only immortality. This is shocking to him, a pain unparalleled by anything else he’s ever known. Then, as he gets rapidly older, the question of feeding comes up. The frail, sickly John must search the streets for someone easy to kill to get his fill of blood. He can’t even manage to get the job done, a man fights him off in an alley. Takes work to stay youthful and gorgeous, right? No matter whether you’re immortal. Beauty is pain. This leads John to do something unspeakable – when he finds his victim, it is devastating, and the scene where he gets the blood is genuinely disturbing material. Great horror stuff, though.
“You said forever”
The crippling loneliness of vampirism is the reason why Miriam turned John, and why she goes on to turn Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). Ultimately, immortality is painful because if you live forever, you’ll only keep outliving those you love. With eternal youth at her side, Miriam is also struck by equally crippling vanity; she stays young, as the ones at her side eventually age. Sure, it might take 300 years, but the lady’s got time. And so while Miriam is sort of tragic in a sense, the way her loneliness drives the vampirism and how it affects her relationships makes her unsympathetic. In the finale, we literally see the skeletons in her closet, the boxer lovers she keeps in coffins, come back to haunt her. As she discovers the end of eternal youth, Miriam is likewise locked into eternal life and feels the full force of her own game turned against her. Through twisting, turning vampire logic, Miriam almost becomes sympathetic once again. However, nobody ends on a happy note in any way, shape, or form. By the last shots, we’re left to ponder whether eternal life means anything good whatsoever. If you’re an addict, if you have to ruin the existence of another human being in order to function and be whole, if you’ll be forever lonely and in search of someone to fill that void (or various someones), then what good is living forever? No good at all.
Dick Smith’s makeup and effects work here is on the level of some of what he did on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (and for those who don’t know he did – among a bunch of others – The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Sentinel, Exorcist II: The Heretic). Right down to the cut necks and throats, the blood is so awesome onscreen. Best of it all are the mummified corpses in Miriam’s apartment, and of course Bowie’s ageing vampire application. Truly, Smith is at the top of his game here. Impeccable, flawless work on Bowie, I mean… I can’t get over it. There’s almost no telling Bowie is under the makeup. If you didn’t know he was in the film before, somehow, you’d never be ale to guess it was him. Smith’s horrific exuberance is part of why the film works. If the effects and makeup were all even just second rate, the whole thing wouldn’t be near as effective. With Smith, The Hunger looks even more magical.
Certainly I can’t not talk about Bowie’s performance. Okay, in a film next to Deneuve and Sarandon you might not expect him to be the greatest. Especially considering his character, though a large part of the story, is a kind of stepping stone towards the real meat between Miriam and Sarah. But I’ll be god damned if this isn’t the best Bowie on film. I dig The Man Who Fell to Earth, completely adore The Last Temptation of Christ. His acting as John Blaylock is transcendent. Yes, I said it! It is, and I’ll tell you WHY. Because for all that heavy and gorgeously morbid makeup Smith applies to his face, Bowie emotes through it unlike anything I’ve seen in a vampire movie. Great actors are able to go past anything a makeup artist puts on their face. His performance is moving, it is full of pain and regret and utter sadness. One of those roles I’ll never forget. Fun note: to get his voice appropriately hoarse for the fact John ages so fast, Bowie went up on the George Washington Bridge every night and shouted all the punk rock songs he could remember. What a fucking cool dude.
I’d give Scott’s first feature a full 5-star rating, although I do feel there are parts that could’ve been tighter in terms of writing. As director he does just about everything to perfection, being a young and hungry filmmaker at the time. The screenplay wanted for better pacing in the second half of the film.
Still, The Hunger is one of the greats. The cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt (Outland, Lethal Weapon) is elegant, stylised, which does lots of neat visual things – that dazzling opener – as well as creates an overall brooding, shadowy mood perfect for a film inhabited by dreary and often hideous vampires. It is a spectacular instance of ’80s horror, and particularly the vampire sub-genre. Quite near the top of my list of favourites. There’s so much to love, from Bowie at his peak to Deneuve and Sarandon letting care go on the wind, abandoning all their hangups to film some wildly erotic material, to Smith’s work on the makeup effects.
Scott will always be missed. With plenty of solid films under his belt when he passed, I really do feel The Hunger is my favourite of his work. It’s the closest he and his brother Ridley ever felt as artists. Moreover, it feels like Tony at his most daring, hoping to bust into the industry with a strong feature full of danger, death, blood, and sex. You’d be sorely mistaken to pass this over. And if you were a fan of American Horror Story: Hotel, you should check out where the strong influence came from – it started right here with this groundbreaking piece of cinema.