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The Test of Time: The Hunger (1983)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY TONY SCOTT

STARRING CATHERINE DENEUVE, DAVID BOWIE, SUSAN SARANDON, DAN HEDAYA, WILLEM DAFOE

Point blank: what’s your all-time favorite vampire movie? Is it a DRACULA joint? Could it be THE LOST BOYS? Perhaps you have a hidden hankering for those preening glitterati-vamps who skulk in the TWILIGHT? No judgments here. Slit a vein a spill some blood on the brain-matter below!

But before you do, let it be known, easily ranking among my top three favorite vampire flicks is Tony Scott’s THE HUNGER. Not only is the flick in the running for one of the best directorial debuts of all time (I see you, CITIZEN KANE), but the way it boldly bucks damn near every convention of cinematic vampirism makes it one of the most unique entries the subgenre has ever known. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and the late great David Bowie – the movie fuses a kind of Gothic upscale elegance with a crass and crude rock-n-roll spirit, with the two poles colliding in a seductively searing Sapphic sex-scene that celebrates, rather than impugns, same-sex relations. And remember, this was made in 1983, well ahead of the curve. In fact, THE HUNGER just had its 35th birthday two weeks ago. You know what that means…The Test of Time is nigh!

THE STORY: Adapted from Whitley Strieber novel by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, THE HUNGER opens with a highly stylized, carnally charged dance-club poaching in NYC. Our two lead characters, John (Bowie) and Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve), frequent a Gothic rock-club looking for fresh blood to imbibe. See, the Blaylocks are functioning vampires, despite that word never being mentioned or even referenced throughout the film. After spotting a tasty looking duo, our vicious vamps seduce two total strangers before slashing their throats and, though never shown, ostensibly ingesting their freshly let blood.

It’s a great tone setter, with Scott’s visual flare and dynamic camera movements on full display. The use of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” perfectly echoes the mood-setting tenor (Scott actually discovered the band in a British nightclub). Returning home to their Gothic 19th century abode – slants of dusty light pouring in through high arched ceilings – we’re introduced to the main conflict of the movie. Despite supposedly being immortal, John is rapidly aging, and has less than 24 hours to live.

Cue Dr. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), a famous geneticist working on a procedure to stop the aging process and promote longevity. John visits Sarah about his condition, but the doc all but dismisses his case as phony. Once home, Miriam determines she no longer wants John around, and as a result, creepily interns the poor old bastard in a coffin, while he’s still alive, and shoves him in a basement mausoleum with the rest of all her deceased former lovers. Bitch is cold…ice cold!

Now feeling guilty for turning John away, Sarah visits the Blaylock mansion to apologize. A glass of wine is shared and soon a smoldering sexual imbroglio between Miriam and Sarah is had, which leads to the latter being infected with vampire blood. More unpredictably yet, when Miriam explains what is happening to Sarah, the doctor gouges her own throat in a shocking suicidal gesture. Sarah would rather remain mortal than to live eternally as a blood-addict. It’s a hell of a sacrifice. In the end, reaching a harrowing level Bava-esque surrealism, the entire crypt of Miriam’s former lovers reanimates back to life, and the passel of zombies subsume her sickened soul as an act of vengeance. Sarah is the only person left alive.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: The entire 97 minutes! No bullshite, I’ve often made the case that Tony Scott is the single most entertaining director of all time. I stand by that. And it’s not something Scott had to learn. He demonstrated this skill-set from the jump. His deft understanding of dynamic camerawork, rapid editing, character-driven plot, striking imagery, bold lighting and eliciting top-flight performance is second to none. This just in: damn near all of Tony Scott’s movies hold up!

I know a lot of people have denigrated THE HUNGER as being little more than a self-indulgent exercise in style over substance, but I roundly refute that claim. And the reason I do so is because of how the drama of THE HUNGER takes primacy in the story, with the vampiric horror playing in tertiary fashion. This is not cheap, exploitative horror, or even a traditional campy cape-wearing, throat-gouging, fang-flashing tale of rote vampirism. Unh unh. This movie works so well today because of the compelling dramatic arcs of the story, and what happens to characters that just so happen to be bloodsucking ghouls. The drama takes precedent, the horror supports it!

The lasting legacy of this dynamic is solidified through the top notching acting in the film. The Parisian treasure Catherine Deneuve brings an instant air of regality to the proceedings. Her elegant beauty, refinement and sophistication plays perfectly against Bowie’s stoic, disaffected rock-star comportment. Both of which perfectly bounce off of Sarandon’s innocent mien and wide-eyed naivety. Much has been made of Bowie’s stirring performance in the film, and rightly so, but revisiting the film recently, it’s pretty clear that Sarandon is the heart and soul of the movie. Damn I love Sarandon, here and forever elsewhere, as like a fine wine, she just keeps appreciating over time. 71 years young and still damn sexy and super talented! Now back to it. What else this level of acting does is allow the horrific elements in the story, in all its stark violence, to come as an unpredictable surprise.

Really, because we become so invested in what will happen to John, Miriam and Sarah – we rarely suspect when the brutal violence is about to strike down. The scene in which John, suffering rapid senescence, suddenly butchers the cute little neighbor girl Alice (Beth Ehlers) during a cello recital, is downright startling. It’s very difficult to see coming. So too is the scene where John, right after leaving the hospital, nastily vitiates an unsuspecting roller-skater. Part of the surprise element has to do with the feeble appearance of John – you simply don’t expect a doddering old man to strike out like that – but most of it is due to Scott’s careful staging, as well as the credibly performed dramatic aspects of the story. Even the love scene itself, it’s so jaw-droppingly sultry you can’t possibly guess what comes next. We’re too engaged in the drama to sense impending violence, which is a hell of a feat!

Another laudable element of the movie is its forward-thinking depiction of homosexuality. Bowie himself is quite famously an androgynous sex-symbol that appeals to both men and women. You know the phrase “every man wants to be like James Bond and every woman wants to be with him”? Yeah well, in Bowie’s case, both men and women want him, both men and women want to be with him! The inspired casting of Bowie in this regard is no accident (funnily enough, it’s been reported that Tony’s brother Ridley was set to direct THE HUNGER initially, but bowed out when learning Bowie was involved in the deal).

Also, the pivotal lesbian love scene in the film between Sarah and Miriam (rightly shot on a closed-set, mind you) functions to elongate life…not shorten it, as some same-sex relations were thought to at the time (with the rise of AIDS and what not). Also, much like the horror in the movie, the sex is handled not with cheap gratuity (save for Sarandon’s wet tee-shirt), but with a certain level of non-exploitive artfulness. That is, it’s sexy but not pornographic.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: As was the case when I first saw it, I could do without the graphic images of animal degradation. I doubt any real life animals were harmed during filming, but seeing that helpless monkey squirming around is nothing pleasant. This is a minor gripe though. No, the real thing I think needs discussing is the very end. No, I’m not talking about the bizarre zombie-sequence that plays like a surreally spooky Mario Bava flick – that part is all sorts of badass – I’m talking about the decision to allow Sarah to live. She really survived that gnarly throat jousting? How? Why? I’m not saying this is a make or break deal, far from it, as the movie is still deserving of its accrued cult-status adoration. But here’s what Sarandon once said about the ending of THE HUNGER, per IMDB:

The thing that made the film interesting to me was this question of, 'Would you want to live forever if you were an addict?' But as the film progressed, the powers that be rewrote the ending and decided that I wouldn't die, so what was the point? All the rules that we'd spent the entire film delineating, that Miriam lived forever and was indestructible, and all the people that she transformed [eventually all] died, and that I killed myself rather than be an addict [was ignored]. Suddenly I was kind of living, she was kind of half dying... Nobody knew what was going on, and I thought that was a shame".

Shame is a bit strong, but I see her point. The conclusion does ring a tad bemusing in the end. Had there been a HUNGER 2, as initially potentiated, this decision would make infinite more sense. But as a standalone film, this ending seems a bit misguided. But only just a bit. In fact, the final long-zoom-out to the NYC Manhattan skyline almost entirely distracts you from it.

THE VERDICT: 35 years on, THE HUNGER still whets the appetite as one the coolest, sexiest, most uniquely offbeat and unconventional vampire movies of all time. It throws tradition out the window, rewrites its own rules, and through compelling characterization, allows the horror to properly support the dramaturgy. The drama comes first, the horror second, which, through the high caliber of acting, elevates the film above mere exploitive genre pabulum. The calling-card bravado of Tony Scott’s stylish direction, the level of performance by its triangular lovelorn leads Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon, the kickass soundtrack, the unpredictable spurts of bloodshed, the rich cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt (THE COTTON CLUB, LETHAL WEAPON)…they all perfectly blend in a way that preserves THE HUNGER as a delectable treat all these years later. Test of Time aced!

STREAM THE HUNGER HERE

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Extra Tidbit: What are your thoughts on THE HUNGER?
Source: AITH

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