The Hunger on-stage introduction for the Ultimate Picture Palace’s Blood & Celluloid: Vampire Film Festival, 15 Oct 2022
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, there was a new movement identifiable in British cinema: the rise of the adman director. For filmmakers like Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and his younger brother Tony Scott all emerged from backgrounds directing commercial advertisements, and brought to their cinema a visual flair and a narrative economy that felt truly new. The downside of this is that their work would be dismissed by certain critics for being, well, commercial, which it certainly was – but in fact this was a period of real invention and experimentation, taking the stuffiness out of ‘respectable’ mainstream British films and introducing a striking modernity, as well as, in the case of the Scott brothers, a genuine love of genre.
You can certainly see this in the opening sequence of Tony Scott’s 1983 feature debut The Hunger, which begins like a glossy music video from the then entirely new and trendy MTV – and, with the group Bauhaus performing their song Bela Lugosi’s Dead, this is also embracing the similarly new and niche goth subculture of the Eighties. In fact what we are seeing is a live gig in a night club, where Miriam and John Blaylock, played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, spot and pick up a couple of swingers. The sequence is a jarring cavalcade of images: not just the Blaylocks prowling the club and driving to the other couple’s modernist home where they seduce and slaughter them, but also repeated cutaways to singer Peter Murphy writhing on stage in a cage-like structure, and to shots of a monkey in an actual laboratory cage becoming agitated and violent as it bloodily murders a fellow captive primate. All these images, chopped up out of order and unfolding in wildly different locations, combine to create a suggestive, kaleidoscopic impression: of predation, of bestiality and of vampirism.
This is Britain’s answer to France’s cinéma du look – all visual storytelling and slick stylisation, rhythmically propulsive in its pacing, but also requiring the viewer to work hard at putting together its disparate narrative pieces. One of those pieces is the animal laboratory where gerontologist Dr Sarah Rogers, played by Susan Sarandon, is helping conduct research on ageing and biological clocks – and so the film forges an irrational associative link, across space and time, between the Blaylocks and Sarah, suggesting a destiny that these three will eventually come to share.
“My time is my own,” Miriam will later tell Sarah – and sure enough, chronology in The Hunger operates according to its own paradoxical rules. Scott regularly overlays dialogue between characters with footage that is out of sync, or he suddenly cuts away to impressionistic flashbacks of Miriam’s first barnyard union with John some 200 years earlier, or of her experiences much longer ago in ancient Egypt. For while Deneuve and Bowie may be icons of a beauty and sexiness entirely of their own time, the characters that they play are old souls in young bodies, even as the town house where they live together in modern, literally New NewYork City is furnished with ancien régime chandeliers and old-world statuary from a much earlier period. Here there is a slippage of time, and a clash of the classical with the contemporary and the cutting edge – and it is hardly a coincidence that when Miriam first meets Sarah at a signing of her book on Sleep and Longevity, an old woman present is played by Bessie Love, a one-time star of the silent era, first under personal contract with D.W. Griffith in 1915 and here, some seven decades later, making her final on-screen appearance. Much as Bessie Love was once renowned for playing innocent young girls, but is here an old woman at the end of her career and near the end of her life, The Hunger is more generally preoccupied with the ravages of time, the fading of beauty and the accelerated onset of putrefaction.
The fact that The Hunger opens with the song Bela Lugosi’s Dead is a good indication of the film’s generic affiliations, but it is worth noting that the word ‘vampire’ is never once used in the film, and that Miriam and John are quite different from conventional vampires. For example, they are able to be photographed, they can – and often do – look at their reflection in the mirror, they are unaffected by sunlight or crucifixes, and are not killed by stakes to the heart (which indeed play no part in the film), and they use a blade hidden in an ankh pendant rather than outsized fangs to open their victims’ throats. Even the coffins in which Miriam’s lovers eventually come to rest are, in keeping with her Egyptian background, more like the sarcophagi of mummies, housing not so much dormant, debonair vamps as their dustily preserved, Fulci-esque remains. What Miriam and John do have in common with more regular vampires is their addictive need to gorge on human blood, and their eternal youth.
Or maybe not quite eternal. Miriam may have promised a succession of lovers with whom she has shared her blood that they will stay young with her forever, but after several hundred years, the effect suddenly wears off and senescence quickly sets in. So here, as in the closing sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see a major character rapidly turning from young Adonis to decrepit old man. The poignancy of these scenes is only enhanced with hindsight for a generation of viewers who has been able to witness Bowie’s untimely wasting away and Deneuve’s ageing. Here a person’s grace may be preserved beyond its years by a stone bust or a polaroid or even by a film like The Hunger itself, but like the flowers that decorate Miriam’s home, nothing lasts forever and an essential part of beauty remains precisely its impermanence and ephemerality – and so Scott’s film serves as a melancholic memento mori.
If beauty fades, love fades too. For The Hunger is a romance of two halves, tracing the end of one relationship, and the beginnings of the next. And much as romance is often rooted in endless longing for the unattainable, Miriam, for all her desirability, serially makes promises that she cannot keep, and she suffers for it – although not as much as her partners will eventually suffer. For all these relationships are unequal and dysfunctional, predicated on a lover’s lie repeatedly told to stave off loneliness – and so a bitter, aching sense of betrayal pervades the film, like the selfishness, writ large, of an addict who will keep saying any old thing to get what she craves, even as she knows the harm that she is doing to her loved ones. The Hunger is certainly a film about addiction. It is also very much a film about AIDS – a condition first named only a year before the film came out and transmissible through blood, with its worst effects delayed till a considerable time after infection.
Like his brother Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) from the year before, Tony Scott’s The Hunger was not initially well received, and has only subsequently acquired something like critical approval not to mention a cult following. The most common criticism of The Hunger – one that would regularly attach itself to Tony Scott’s subsequent films too – is that it is all style and no substance. After all, the sets are full of billowing voile curtains, drifting smoke, yellowing light, deep shadows – and there are also, as though this were a John Woo picture, doves everywhere indoors. Yet all these cool surfaces and chic postures conceal a rot and decay within that are only slowly revealed. The film is not just a work of gothic – in both the nineteenth-century and 1980s sense of the term – but it also comes with the decadence that is part and parcel of this genre. The style here is just a cover for something much uglier beneath.
Blade Runner and The Hunger have more in common than merely being sleeper hits. For while they belong to different blended genres – the one a noir-ish sci-fi, the other an erotic horror – both reference the disease progeria, both feature characters vainly racing to slow their biological programming and to extend their life span, and both are obsessed with time’s inexorable, irreversible arrow. Both films also suffered from studio interference. Famously the original theatrical release of Blade Runner came with an expository voice-over from Deckard and a happy ending (of sorts), both imposed by the studio, which Ridley Scott would remove or ambiguate in several subsequent director’s cuts. With The Hunger too, the studio wanted to leave open the possibility of sequels, and so insisted upon the addition of a coda which Susan Sarandon has gone on record to complain makes little sense and goes against everything that the film has previously established about the workings of its own mythology.
Personally I rather like the ending, with its suggestion of a character maintaining a clear continuity with the past even as she also moves on to new pastures and new hunting grounds. This is the same old never-ending story, always changing yet somehow remaining unchanged as it is told and retold for each successive age and generation. When Sarah discovers that her own blood has become infected with alien blood, she asks a colleague: “You said that there’s a fight between the two strains for dominance. … Who’s winning, Charlie?” By the end, we have an answer to this question, even if the message comes mixed and ambiguous, full of contradictions and irrationalities – yet in a film where shadows and bisexuality rule, perhaps a certain ambiguity is to be expected and embraced.
strap: Tony Scott’s erotic horror uses its surface style to conceal and eventually reveal the decay and rot beneath
© Anton Bitel