Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger was a movie that sharply divided both critics and horror fans at the time of its release. It was accused of being a triumph of style over substance. Perhaps it is, but with this much style who needs substance?

Tony Scott, like his brother Ridley Scott, had a background in TV commercials and it shows. The Hunger was criticised for its supposedly MTV-style cutting, and was also seen as a filmic manifestation of 80s excess. So negative was the movie’s reception that it was several years before Tony Scott could get another director’s gig.

There is some truth in all of these criticisms, but what really matters is - does the film work? The answer to that has to be yes. In fact in retrospect the idea of combining the decadence of vampires (blood-sucking parasitical creatures who never age) with the decadent excesses of the 80s (and what were the yuppies if they weren’t blood-sucking parasitical creatures desperately trying not to age) was a stroke of genius.

And if Tony Scott leant his craft making TV commercials, who cares? If that industry can produce people with as much visual flair as Scott displays in this film then more power to the TV commercial industry.

And to be honest the accusation of lack of substance is really not very fair. This is an unconventional vampire movie packed with more good ideas than most 80s horror movies. And while the plot is sometimes overshadowed by the visual extravagances it does most certainly have a plot.

Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) are a rather arty and very sophisticated couple living in New York. They teach music, but clearly they don’t need the money. They do so for the love of music.

Miriam is also a vampire. One of the strengths of this move is that doesn’t try to over-explain the characters’ backstories or the particular variation on the vampire mythos that forms the basis of the story. It avoids lengthy and cumbersome exposition. We are given hints, and that’s enough. One thing that is clear is that Miriam is almost unimaginably old, that she has probably survived since the days of ancient Egypt. She appears to be effectively immortal. She is a very beautiful woman in her late 30s, and she has been
a very beautiful woman in her late 30s for several thousand years.

Of course being immortal has its downside - loneliness. If you are immortal and you fall in love with a mortal you must watch your lover grow old and die. For Miriam there is a solution to this, but it’s only a partial solution. She can create new vampires to provide her with companionship, but there’s a problem. While Miriam is immortal, these vampiric creations of hers are not quite true vampires. Like her they feed on human blood, and they are immortal in a sense. But Miriam is not just immortal - she is entirely immune to the ageing process. These creations of hers are only partly immune to ageing. They remain young for centuries, but then they start to age and they age very rapidly indeed. But the true horror is, they age but they don’t die.

John has been her companion since the eighteenth century. He had been a beautiful young man, she had fallen in love with him, and she had offered him her gift - the gift of living for centuries and remaining as beautiful as ever, but with the knowledge that it might not last forever. As was the case with all her other lovers Miriam prayed that this time it might really last forever.

Now Miriam believes science may hold the answer. Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) and her team are working on the theory that ageing is a disease and it’s potentially curable.

Miriam’s tragedy is that while she might be some strange not-quite-human creature who must kill in order to survive, emotionally and sexually she is a completely normal woman. What she wants is a love that will fast forever, and while it seems impossible she must still keep trying. If John cannot be saved she must find a replacement, because Miriam is a woman who cannot live without love. Now she has a eye on Sarah Roberts as a replacement (Miriam being a bisexual vampire).

While David Bowie was probably the big box-office draw in this film it’s Catherine Deneuve who is unquestionably the star. She manages to make Miriam both subtly other-worldly and yet still very much a woman.

That’s not to say that David Bowie isn’t good. In fact he’s superb, but his role is more of a supporting role. What I like about his performance is a certain formality about his manners, very subtle done but it makes it believable that he really is a man of the eighteenth century. It’s little touches like that show just how good an actor he is.

The weak link is Susan Sarandon. Apart from the fact that her acting simply isn’t in the same league as Deneuve’s or Bowie’s the character of Sarah Roberts is not all that interesting. It’s easy to understand why a woman as cultured and sophisticated as Miriam would want to spend centuries with John Blaylock (Bowie). He’s a man who is obviously worthy of her. But it’s difficult to understand why she’s want to spend ten minutes with Sarah Roberts. Susan Sarandon just doesn’t have the class to make Miriam’s obsession convincing.

That’s a minor quibble. This is still one of the most interesting and stylish of all vampire movies, and I recommend it very highly indeed.

I should also mention the opening sequence, with Bauhaus performing their classic Bela Lugosi’s Dead. It’s also worth pointing out the influence that photographer Helmut Newton had on the style of this movie. Another nice touch is that their are no fangs in evidence - these vampires use rather elegant little knives in the shape of an Egyptian ankh.


Anonymous said...

"Another nice touch is that their are no fangs in evidence - these vampires use rather elegant little knives in the shape of an Egyptian ankh."

Brilliant! I have to watch this again.

dfordoom said...

"Brilliant! I have to watch this again."

I hadn't seen it for quite a while. I was worried it might be a bit too 80s, but surprisingly it doesn't seem dated at all. Deneuve and Bowie just have so much class. And it has a nice mix of ancient and modern decadence.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Awful film! You were far too generous with this undeserving offal! A fine review as ever though!