An ageless Catherine Deneuve, underutilized David Bowie and some mildly exotic art house lesbiana masquerading as incongruous, if occasionally bone-chilling Goth horror/suspense, are likely the best reasons to indulge in director, Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983); a fairly mindless, if immeasurably stylish excursion into vampirism. Is it just me or is everyone in this bungled cinematic revamp of Whitley Strieber’s miraculous and tantalizing novel smoking enough cigarettes to give Philip Morris lung cancer? Political incorrectness aside, the screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas all but jettisons the novel’s back story, devoted to principled but lonely sophisticate, Miriam Blaylock; a centuries-old vampire who has seduced scores of lovers with the promise of immortality. Cleverly, the novel never refers to Miriam as ‘the undead’. Actually, she’s not. She is very much alive – sustained on the blood of hapless victims who are attracted as moths to her eternal flame of peerless porcelain beauty. Refreshingly, Strieber’s incarnation of the vampire bears little resemblance to the supernatural, exorcised ad nauseam elsewhere in the lore of the blood-sucker. Nor are they insidiously intent on destroying mankind with their magical blood-letting powers simply because they can. Rather, Miriam has evolved from a highly intelligent and secretive humanoid species, having coexisted alongside our own for as long as time itself. She feeds her more perverse ‘hunger’ merely to survive, the same way we must kill and eat other animals to sustain ourselves. Periodically, the feasting results in a sexual détente as Miriam takes lover(s) first converted to human/vampire hybrids with a modest exchange of her blood.
One problem – even immortality has its limitations and expiration dates. The reason, Miriam is not human. She was born a vampire like her Egyptian mother before her. Except for the ankh worn about her neck, doubling as a small impaling device with which to slash open the throats of her unsuspecting victims, and the briefest of flashbacks, inserted by Tony Scott as part of his penultimate montage, depicting an Egyptian queen gorging on the bloody entrails of some poor unsuspecting concubine, no reference is made in the movie to this ancient past, leaving the viewer wondering exactly what in the hell is going on. Buried somewhere, perhaps in the Blaylock’s upstairs attic – a billowy-curtained and dove-infested atrium where this eternal seductress has stored the decomposing remains of every lover she has ever taken to her bloody bosom - is a pseudo-intellectual social commentary about contemporary society’s exploitation of each other expressly for the rank pleasures of the flesh. Alas, Scott’s movie waffles between endeavoring to be a ‘message picture’, a stylish suspense/thriller, and a gory horror flick – achieving lasting status as none of these three, either by merit of its virtues – or vices – depending on one’s point of view. Given its gruesome subject matter, The Hunger remains an un-remarkably subdued affair, its one saving grace, its style – moodily uninhibited, but never going beyond the quasi stages of blood-sharing foreplay.
In belated passing, we acknowledge the epic loss of a truly original artist; perhaps the last towering figure to emerge on the music scene in the latter half of the twentieth century and, alas, an under-exposed figure in American movies: David Bowie, with his angular, almost anorexic bone structure and piercing hypnotic stare through wounded eyes; a descriptive visage uncannily designed to be loved by the camera. It bows well for Bowie that he also managed, seemingly with effortlessness, to move from seismic shifting/gender-bending pop sensation to credible ‘legitimate’ actor. The notion he could be both must have appeared unlikely to his critics, despite his early studies in avant-garde theatre and as a mime under Lindsay Kemp. Indeed, Bowie would prove much in demand in the movies, appearing as the brutalized POW in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence this same year, desired by the producers of the James Bond franchise to play the villain, Max Zoran in A View To A Kill (1985) – a part he declined – and lending his presence, charm and musical stylings to the popular children’s fantasy, Labyrinth (1986). Arguably, acting was Bowie’s first love. Unquestionably, it ran a parallel course with his music career – the more dominant strain of his life’s work as time wore on. By 1983, Bowie had already appeared in numerous theatrical and TV productions in both the U.K. and U.S. Yet, it is in The Hunger that he first emerges a full-fledged star, despite Tony Scott’s varying misshapen attempts for him to remain the film’s ‘best kept secret’; briefly glimpsed in his prime, before being plastered over in Antony Clavet’s stipple and latex appliances that effectively transform Bowie’s youth into a rapidly gnarling mess of human decay.
Regrettably, as John Blaylock, the victimized boy toy/vampire-human hybrid, Bowie is given only a few choice scenes in which to distinguish his acting abilities. This, he effectively does; particularly in the silently played moments John suddenly realizes the accelerated and irreversible aging process has already begun; his hastened physical decrepitude causing him to frantically seek out Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who, understandably, does not believe this jowly and balding gentleman is actually a man in his mid-thirties, or rather, mid-thirties plus 200 years. Promising to address his concerns in less than fifteen minutes, Sarah instead quietly dismisses John as a crank, forgetting all about him for several hours during which he continues his rapid decline. Understandably shaken by his metamorphic transformation, Sarah endeavors to make a mends for her rudeness. But John is insolent as he storms out of her clinic, hurrying back to the brownstone he shares with Miriam. In a last ditch and very desperate attempt to stave off his disease, John murders Alice Cavender (Beth Ehlers), the child protégée violinist who has come to practice her craft with the Blaylocks. She is unsuspecting this fate at first, and quite unable to recognize John in his present condition. John drinks of her blood. But even this does nothing to halt the aging process. John disposes of Alice’s body in the basement furnace and later in the evening, when Miriam returns, confesses to the murder.
But his pleas for Miriam to love him as before are shattered when she, repulsed by his disfigurement, retires John instead to a storage box in the attic – the cruel final resting place housing all of Miriam’s moldering lovers; rotting and skeletal, but still very much – if barely - alive. Not long thereafter, Miriam is visited by Lieutenant Allegrezza (Dan Hedaya) who is investigating Alice’s disappearance. She is cagily smooth and mostly successful at dissuading Allegrezza from discovering the truth. But Miriam is now attracted to Sarah who has managed to track John down in the hopes of making a formal apology for her earlier arrogance. Miriam lies to Sarah about John having gone away to Switzerland, presumably for treatment. Sarah is understandably perplexed, but accepts Miriam at face value. The two establish an unsettling friendship. Having earlier quarreled with her own lover, Tom Haver (Cliff de Young), Sarah falls prey to Miriam’s hypnotic sway, dissolving into a steamy lesbian seduction. Drawing blood during their love-making, Miriam allows Sarah to return to Tom. But Sarah fast begins to suffer from inexplicable cramps, night sweats and convulsions. Colleagues at her clinic analyze a sample of her blood only to discover two unique strains of plasma within her fighting for dominance.
Miriam’s psychic persuasion draws Sarah back to the townhouse where her uncontrollable compulsion and blood-lust are exercised upon an unsuspecting Tom who has followed her there. Having destroyed her human lover, Sarah now elects to take her own life, stabbing herself in the neck with Miriam’s ankh. Afterward, Miriam dutifully carries Sarah’s seemingly lifeless body to the attic. But she is unprepared for what happens next; surrounded by the mummified corpses of her entourage of former lovers, Miriam is hastened over the edge of the upstairs bannister. Plummeting several stories, her crushed body strikes the marble tile far below with a thud, resulting in her rapid decomposition. A short while later, Allegrezza returns to the Blaylock house, only to discover it emptied of its fine furnishings; a local realtor, Arthur Jelinek (Shane Rimmer), explaining the owners are since deceased and the proceeds from the sale bequeathed to a mysterious research clinic. We flash ahead to London. Sarah has not died, but rather, been transformed by Miriam into a human/vampire hybrid; having recreated the same moneyed and self-imposed exile with a pair of youths as her concubines. As Sarah stares blankly off into the distance from the balcony of her fashionable apartment, Miriam – still very much alive – is heard softly crying from her imprisonment inside another box concealed somewhere in the bowels of the building; Sarah, thus doomed to perpetuate the cycle of vampirism for a good many years yet to follow.
Despite this penultimate and briefly delicious revenge scenario, The Hunger is not terribly prepossessing. In spots, it downright drags with very little to say about Whitley Strieber’s infinitely more complex characters. The novel’s strength was it treated Miriam’s vampirism as grand tragedy; a quagmire of abject loneliness and highly personal regrets amplified by the sudden demise of her most recent husband, John. Miriam cannot help herself, you see. She is not spiteful in her bloodlust. It is a necessity for her survival. The movie suffers two great miscalculations; first, by ignoring Miriam’s increasing inner conflict about killing for the sake of self-preservation, and second, because the Davis/Thomas screenplay treats Miriam’s personal loss and John’s eternal suffrage, not as pivotal moments of realization (as in the novel) rather, vignettes in a more vast canvass of doomed eternity; director, Tony Scott far more interested in indulging in a bit of art house soft core, punctuated by Act 2, No. 2 Duetto, Viens, Malika... Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin, from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé: The Flower Duet. Scott’s forte, as with his more famous brother, Ridley, is impeccably staged compositions, dimly-lit, smoky interiors that positively reek of embalming fluid in all their sophisticated claustrophobia.
The Hunger is a very dark movie, figuratively and literally; thanks to Stephen Goldblatt’s morose cinematography. This ‘look’ works well for the interiors of the Blaylock manor – a fashionable New York brownstone; also, ably setting the overall tone during the film’s stunning opener under the main titles; a caged nightclub subbing in for an uber-Faustian purgatory where misguided humans, who think themselves creatures of the night, bump and grind to the erotic strains of Bauhaus’ anthem, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. But it remains a mystery – and a disconnect – to discover the rest of Manhattan – and later, London – having adopted this visual equivalent; the clinic where Sarah experiments on antisocial baboons to probe the secrets of life (just call her Madame Frankenstein) as dank, dim and depressing; bathed in a silty and perpetually lingering fog in the air. The Hunger’s strength is its palpable chemistry between Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie; Deneuve’s doe-eyed seductress taking on the vogueish characterization of Sean Young’s replicant, Rachel, from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and Bowie, in his youthful incarnation, very much playing to the perversions of a steely-eyed pleasure seeker time has almost forgotten but regrettably, is about to recall home with disastrous results. There is merit to this coupling, rather unceremoniously dispatched by Tony Scott in just a few key scenes, utterly deprived of the novel’s back story to make John’s loss, and Miriam’s tear-stained reaction to it either compelling or, in fact, memorable.
The picture’s ‘art house’ quality is capped off by its extended lesbian sex scene; Sarandon, naked from the waste up, and, Deneuve, cinched into a black bustier, fondling one another with wet, open-mouthed kisses; most of it photographed through billowy gauze curtains to modulate the more overtly pornographic elements. Aside: I, for one, am not particularly a fan of sex in the movies. While the act itself can undeniably manifest pleasure between two people in private, the intrusion of a camera strips bare these shared intimacies, simultaneously ignoring the cerebral aspects of heartfelt love-making, substituted by a gratuitous placements of hands, arms and legs in service to the staging of the act, yet, oddly enough, neither to titillate nor tantalize with the promise of genuine erotica, but rather, make commonplace and crude such experimentation between consenting adults. The blood-letting aspect of The Hunger’s sexual liaison does not shock or repulse as much as it appears almost anticipated. It neither advances the narrative nor does it prove any point that has not already been given more graphic illustration elsewhere in the plot. As such, what purpose it actually serves other than to create a moment of ‘oh, God…I can’t believe they did that’ is, frankly, beyond yours truly.
From the vantage of our present sex-saturated culture, The Hunger will likely appear tame, with conventional ‘critique’ and what passes for intellectual ‘wisdom’ these days slanting toward ‘so, what’s the big deal?’ – a very sad indictment on this generation’s inability to discover or even be able to acknowledge something – anything – that is sacred, or even deemed worth preserving without first adopting a cynical ‘in your face’ attitude and disregard for human frailty of any kind that does not completely transfer into ridiculous farce. As a product of the 1970s, coming of age in the 1980s, I can only suggest the obvious to those who neither experienced this gradual devolution first hand, nor fear the ‘looking glass’ flipside in moral iniquity yet to completely devour our one-time ensconced system of values, currently caught in the death throws of an absolute societal implosion. We are very near this tipping point; the anarchy of our art – pre-sold as Godless and gutless ‘truths,’ presumably self-evident, supplanting and marking the end of a beautiful way of looking at the world. The Hunger is hardly ‘high art’ or even born of an aspiration to situate itself into high culture, though, at the very least, it aspires to cast its unflattering pall on the foibles of the latter, circa 1983. Our more recent spate of horror movies have, with increasing frequency, make not even an attempt to sheath their menial drivel with odes to the artistic; something Tony Scott endeavored – and occasionally, succeeds – in doing.
Streiber’s novel took the high road, exploring aspects of human passion and tenderness, seen through the ultimate in flawed relationships, exploring our collective fear of the aging process and its correlated loss of sexual desire; better still, employing the arc of history, ingeniously blended with his own reworking of classic European folklore devoted to vampirism. The movie is not nearly as clever, but it still manages to find something more to say about a few of these eccentricities before and after Miriam and Sarah have shed their inhibitions and their clothes. In retrospect, even Scott’s mangled effort becomes unanticipatedly commendable. What manages to seep into the film, perhaps even in spite of itself, is a glint of Streiber’s more powerful intellectualism; an almost shockingly clinical deconstruction of these aforementioned influences and appropriately centered around Miriam Blaylock: woman as creature of the night, empathetic in her innate – if bizarrely human – longing to belong to someone, denied even this by the natural world’s inability to chart a share path for her eternity.
The novel used epigrams from Keats and Tennyson to argue its points. The film, merely takes in some badly bungled pseudo-psychological babble about misguided unions and the wreck and ruin they can bring to those unsuspecting of a deeper, otherworldly and exacerbated ‘hunger’ for something greater than self-preservation or a momentary tussle between silken bedsheets. Streiber’s novel drew parallels between human love and animal prey. Tony Scott tries to straddle these commonalities; much top clumsily to make them stick as anything better than brief and fairly grotesque moments of foreshadowing; as the scene where an adult male baboon in Sarah’s research laboratory slashed into its female companion until she is thoroughly disemboweled. As literature, The Hunger was both a page-turner and illuminating exposé on humanity’s shared imperfections and its inhumanity towards professed loved ones. Cinematically, such intricacies get distilled into a dark (really dark) journey through the labyrinth of genuine human pain; void of Streiber’s restlessly ambitious intelligence and ability to probe and deconstruction the secrets of our occasionally wanton and malignant universe. The movie merely presents us with visions of a hopeless future for Sarah – now the blood-sharing priestess of this doomed legacy; destined to remain alone, isolated, and ravaged by the gnawing realization there can be no refuge for the wicked; at least, none to satisfy beyond the most base quest for survival, and yet, without promise, hope or even a fixed sense of one’s own mortality – thus, depriving her of even a momentary sense of permanency in this corruptible world.
The Hunger was shot by British cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt. The Warner Archive’s new 2K transfer is culled from an interpositive, color corrected to address issues of fading. The Blu-ray is, for the most part, quite stunning with only a few scattered incidents of image instability. Blu-ray's ability to glean even the minutest detail from Goldblatt’s subtle variations, lensed under deliberately under-lit conditions, is quite striking. The image adopts a chronic azure hue with exaggerated uber-vibrant reds and golds as its sparsely shared primary colors. Contrast is superb throughout and grain structure has been lovingly preserved, shown off to its best advantage. Bottom line: as with all catalog Blu-ray coming down the WAC pipeline, The Hunger will surely not disappoint. The film’s original mono audio gets a breathtaking 2.0 DTS mono upgrade. Fidelity is shockingly solid and effective. The only extra is an audio commentary from Tony Scott, actually quite comprehensive and easily one of the best I have heard in a very long while. Here is a director so secure in his craft and ability to keep us spellbound in the dark, he can effortlessly veer from commenting directly on the action taking place on the screen to offer back story, insight and anecdotal stories about the making of the movie that, at times, I sincerely found a far more enriching experience than the movie itself. Bottom line: if vampires are your cup of tea, The Hunger comes across as a classier affair than most. It’s still pulp movie-making rather than cinéma vérité, but it effectively bests almost anything passing for a good scary vampire flick these days. Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)