The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — five from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Rarely does a film so powerfully punctuate its apparent ambitions of poetry and perversity before the opening credits conclude as 1983’s The Hunger.
Peter Murphy, the frontman of pioneering goth-rockers Bauhaus, crawls and sneers for a direct address of the band’s song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” — framed so tight behind a barrier from which he beckons it’s like we’re tempting fate by approaching a cage we’ve been warned to ignore. With surgically swift precision, images rapidly cut from Murphy to dancers in the club where he’s performing — a countercultural cornucopia of fashion seemingly fished from gutters or garbage cans and hairstyles so severe and stiff glaciers could’ve carved them.
Then we see Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie gazing upon the undulating masses from above — a marketplace for the meat they intend to take home to seduce … and slaughter. A nipple flash here. A blade slash there. Rivulets of blood everywhere. Deneuve and Bowie’s weapons are thumbnail knives concealed in pendants shaped like the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph of the ankh. Even as The Hunger subverts this image’s widely accepted representation of everlasting life, it upholds traditional symbolism; after all, these apex predators clearly thrive on the kill. But it also establishes a corruption of communication that cuts to the heart of The Hunger’s finest moments. This opening gambit is already an enticing threnody of ecstasy and terror, and that’s before inserts of actual caged animals ripping one another to shreds in a fit of primal rage.
The Hunger represented the feature-film debut of director Tony Scott, and its immediately arresting arrival doubles as a downbeat reminder of his 2012 death at age 68 and the decade (or more) robbed of new images with which he could freshly scorch our synapses. Scott went on to carve out commercial success by conjuring exactly what your mind’s eye sees when considering the slicked-back, coked-up aesthetic of mainstream action in the 1980s and 1990s. To those familiar with Scott’s work, those initial editorial rhythms of The Hunger will almost feel like a lullaby. But the initiated might be surprised by how deeply, and calmly, Scott contemplates death, transfiguration and all their attendant, inescapably intertwined obsessions … at least for 45 minutes.
At first glance, John (Bowie) and Miriam (Deneuve) could be garden-variety serial murderers. Instead, they are vampires — unbound by traditional tropes of avoiding daylight or not appearing in captured images. Still, they must feed on blood once per week to survive. Miriam is the master, having turned John 200 years ago so he could live forever and be her lover. In the afterglow of their latest meal, Miriam reaffirms her pledge of undying love to John. But as the subsequent scene moves right to left, it emphasizes the perpetual past of vampires unmoored by time and the natural wither of arduous passion. Miriam’s words feel like a retreat to familiarity rather than an advance to a new frontier, a formality rather than an intimacy. On one hand: What relationship wouldn’t stagnate after a couple of centuries? On the other, John suspects a shift in the emotional sustenance he’s known for several hundred years, and he’ll soon face the fine print of the pitch and pledge Miriam made to him long ago.
Deepening lines on his face. Small tufts of hair coming loose in his hands. Overnight liver spots. John’s frozen youthfulness is swiftly thawing, as captured by increasingly decrepit aging prosthetics. (How the Academy Awards opted to omit the Best Makeup award altogether in a year including this, Videodrome and Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi boggles the mind.) The opening credits tout these effects as “makeup illusions” by Dick Smith, and that posturing is well-earned — holding up in presentation 40 years later, accurately reflecting how the late Bowie would actually look in his 60s, and choosing the credited word of “illusion” to strengthen the subtext of John’s futile fury in the face of creeping … well, it’s not exactly death.
“There is no relief, my darling. No rest. No letting go,” Miriam tells John at his most mummified. As promised, John will not die. But he will perpetually see, hear and feel in eternal darkness in an attic Miriam has concealed from him. It’s a makeshift mausoleum stacked with the coffins of her other lovers, accumulated across millennia since her Egyptian origins. Did Miriam lie to John? Not technically. But technicalities always torture on the deathbed.
And so it goes for John, who seeks last-gasp treatment from Dr. Sarah Douglas (Susan Sarandon), a research gerontologist investigating a cure for “age as a curable disease.” Susan’s scientific investigation is expensive, so she must dumb it down for talk-show sound bites to court funding. That’s how Miriam and John first see her, and Susan blows John off like any other crackpot who comes to her office — with a bluff to wait 15 minutes until after her meeting and hoping his frustration will prompt him to leave. Instead, John’s several hours of entombment in her waiting room feels like a warmup for his final resting place.
Although The Hunger gives Bowie’s diabolically velvet voice plenty to say, he’s eminently evocative without any elocution. John’s eyes dart desperately behind the decay, frantically seeking an anchor in a reality he no longer recognizes. His hands fritter and fuss as they grow more feeble. His mouth opens to a shout he stifles before it can escape, as if preemptively recognizing the irony of a creature’s entreaty for mercy to a higher power whose meaning is defiled by the creature’s existence. (He’s aided by accompanying classical cues from Franz Schubert, Édouard Lalo and Gregorio Allegri, all largely written in declining health or reflective of dwindling life.)
Driven by the unspoken belief that a more “extreme” feed can save him, John trusts his predatory muscle memory to take one last life — an outcome rendered even more nihilistically savage by its uselessness in reversing his condition. It’s a vestige of John’s vampirism and humanity; at our brightest moments, none of us believes we could succumb to time. And when we arrive there, simultaneously sped up and slowed down, there surely must be one choice we could make to reverse it. Alas, the only decision to make as the final curtain draws is whether to focus on the slivers of light that peek through or the dark shroud cast upon you. Bowie gives appropriately elegiac nuance to John’s contemplation of this mournful realization that awaits us all, as well as the condemning connotations of his choice. Had his performance not been relegated to supporting status, it might mirror the enduring affection given to Jeff Goldblum’s similarly empathetic turn through makeup three years later in 1986’s The Fly.
As reflected by Susan’s research, the infatuation with aging and death would seem a natural bridge to the back half of The Hunger, which finds Miriam seducing Susan with the intent of transforming her into her latest apprentice and lover. Poetry suffuses the prologue. Despite no shortage of stunning visuals, what passes after that is a perfunctory plot and “provocative” sex — all paced to paper over any poignant notes Deneuve and Sarandon could play. Mystique and momentum are muscled out by lesbian fantasy (in which you see just how much Scott dialed back billowing curtains for his comparatively cheesy and chaste encounter in Top Gun) and a traditional, literalized story of horror endangerment.
Miriam describes what Susan will feel as “a hunger that hurts so much you lose all reason.” Adapting from Whitley Streiber’s novel, co-writers Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas strongly grasp this notion in the early goings. But it yields to their meager attempt at marrying the distressed damsel of Mina Harker to the sexual liberation of Lucy Westenra. Is The Hunger occasionally scintillating in these moments? Hard to not be with beauties like Sarandon and Deneuve, and having courted an X rating before some cuts, it’s certainly explicit in a manner eye-raising for 1983. But its thin conclusion mostly emphasizes the petit in la petit mort.
Instead of letting Sarandon put Susan’s cellular shift of panic and paranoia under the microscope, it merely does so to her actual cells (as a would-be boyfriend played by Cliff DeYoung tries to discern what’s happening). Neither does it allow Deneuve a way to distinguish pockets of true love amid a promise she knows is conditional. What should be a tempestuous trajectory builds to a Lucio Fulci-esque finish (albeit with an unexpectedly lovely / grotesque moment of decayed lovers holding each other like Pompeii’s Maidens) and, most regrettably, a studio-mandated coda that drains altogether what little character touches we’re given.
If only for its flawless first half, Bowie’s outstanding performance and Scott’s proof of concept as a superior image-maker, The Hunger remains worthwhile. Just know that what should have been a lingering lamentation falls prey to an all-consuming transfusion of style over substance.