A strobe-lit nightclub. Mod vampires Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) pose in shades. Bauhaus sing ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. The deadly duo bring a couple of club kids home for fun and games. Ankh switchblades tear crimson lines. Gleaming white walls are splattered with blood. Thus begins The Hunger, a movie Tony Scott might have intended as Repulsion (1965) for the MTV generation, but the chilly visuals, bisexual chic and super-stylised bloodshed didn’t gel for moviegoers back in ’83. Twenty-five years on, it stands as one of his better films.
In modern day (well, early eighties) New York, beautiful, bloodsucking immortal Miriam Blaylock lives a life of luxury with her husband, John. Born in Egypt, some 4,000 years ago, Miriam is able to pass on some of her genetic material to human beings, through friendly bites, transforming them into loving companions. Dreamy flashbacks to an 18th century idyll show how she passed her gift onto John. Unfortunately, after three hundred years each of Miriam’s lovers begin to age rapidly, withering away into decayed, but feebly alive husks that she entombs and stores in her attic. After John shrivels into a decrepit mummy, Miriam sets her sights on seducing gerontologist, Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon).
That’s your lot as far as plot goes in The Hunger, and even so you’ll derive more information from reading a synopsis than actually watching the movie. Purists may wonder why these vampires wander around in daylight. Your guess is as good as mine. Adapting a novel by Whitley Strieber (who later wrote about his supposed abduction by aliens in Communion (1990)), Tony Scott adopts an abstract approach to storytelling, akin to Nicholas Roeg, that requires some patience. He does create an atmosphere of sensual, otherworldly dread through lush visuals, off-kilter editing and some inventive match cuts. Aside from the knockout opening, the most effective sequence is subtle: John left alone in a hospital waiting room where he ages fifty years. Sadly, the mood is undone by a silly scene where he attacks a roller-skating teenager like something out of Flashdance (1983). The one murder that truly shocks is John’s attack on music student, Alice and that’s only because actress Beth Ehlers makes a vivid impression as the sassy youngster, old before her time. Shame she hasn’t done much since (also blink and you’ll miss Willem Dafoe).
Much of the pseudo-scientific blather about accelerated aging is like something out of a Fifties B movie, but Scott conveys some of the tragedy behind Miriam’s immortal existence. Our anti-heroine (memorably described in the NME as: “the last of a dying breed who live forever” - huh?!) is trapped in cyclical slow-motion while all around her age at super-speed. The core relationships are quite touching, aided by Catherine Deneuve’s total sincerity, although Bowie delivers some of his best work, even beneath Dick Smith’s impressive makeup. After Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), Deneuve was the biggest star in France and here, effortlessly combines style with menace. Yet for all the bare flesh on display - and, let’s face it, Deneuve’s considerable allure - The Hunger’s soft-focus Sapphic love/vampire feeding scenes are too antiseptic to be erotic. Certainly when compared to Jean Rollin’s work in the genre and, the greatest lesbian vampire movie of them all (and one of the great horror movies - period): Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971). Also, the bizarre, shock ending smacks of after-thought. It doesn’t make any sense and undercuts the delicate mood.
After The Hunger (later the blanket title for a horror TV series produced by Tony and Ridley Scott) movie vampires and irritating, New Romantic poseurs were irretrievably linked, leading to the tedious, style conscious vamps in The Lost Boys (1987) and Blade (1998). Yet the film has its defenders, not least of all Susan Sarandon who recently declared: “I’m very proud of starring in a soft-core, lesbian vampire movie.” Good on you, girl.
British-born director Tony Scott was the brother of director Ridley Scott and worked closely with him in their production company for film and television, both having made their names in the advertising business before moving onto glossy features for cinema. He shocked Hollywood by committing suicide by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles for reasons that were never disclosed.