The Vampyre Chronicles: The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger - David BowieWelcome to another experimental RowThree column. A bit of a free form flow of ideas and observations of vampire movies. It turns out that a lot of folks around here dig on the blood-sucking set. No, not the MPAA, but rather the movie monster/legend that has probably spawned more films than any other: Nosferatu, Vampyre, Tom Cruise. While you could make a minor case that the Vampire film is an offshoot of the cannibal film in general, as it is the consuming of another’s flesh to retain ones own — it is the romantic trappings and upscale-society European elements that are probably more palatable to audiences than jungles, African tribes and boiling pots (I’m trafficking in cliches, but you get the idea). Plus, it is the innate sexual imagery that drives many a vampire film. Think of the whole Lucy/Dracula/Mina thread woven throughout Bram Stoker’s Turn of the Century novel Dracula. Heck, think Sadie Frost, Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version; a film that had the foresight to cast a young Monica Bellucci as Dracula’s Bride#2. Sexuality is ripe within the genre. More interestingly, this is often entwined with a curious melancholy stemming from having to prey on what you once were in order to fuel endless immortality. A thread in many a vampire yarn involves the difficulties of grasping and the impossibility of embracing ‘living forever.’

This brings us to the kick-off version of the new semi-regular column which does little beyond having a look back at older Vampire movies. Tony Scott‘s 1983 film, The Hunger. Known mainly then for the hundreds of British TV commercials he made for his brother Ridley‘s Ad company at the time, it is curious to see that The Hunger resembles music videos as much as it does perfume ads. The film opens with Bauhaus lead singer, Peter Murphy, singing the iconic goth anthem, Bela Lugosi’s Dead. If that ain’t foreshadowing in both plot and theme, then, well, I don’t know what is. The opening sequence, lasting upwards of 10 minutes, is told 100% visually and aurally – no dialogue. It is a great introduction to the aristocratic vampire duo of David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as they hunt/seduce/slum in the goth clubs before wholesale slaughter and feeding. Cut to the ‘team of scientists’ section of the film and introduction to third principle, Susan Sarandon. The film is less interested with introducing characters as it is between visually connecting a savage and dying monkey to Bowie’s vampire. The connection of the two is not particularly subtle, but it has a grand and savage magisterial quality to it (appropriate to any vampire film). You see both the monkey and the vampire are going through periods of rapid aging. The monkey on on a video tape and soon the vampire in the waiting room to the same research lab. Bowie‘s aging is a triumph of practical make-up effects and solid editing. I’d go so far to say that other than one badly lit scene, its probably the most convincing on-screen aging ever accomplished, and this in almost a single sequence lasting about 10 minutes.

Sarandon‘s researcher, seeing Bowie before and after his wait outside the laboratory gates (in a very stately 1940s art deco styled waiting room – did I mention the production design here is posh?), follows him back to his Brownstone lair and meets Catherine Deneuve who, upon quite short notice, is looking for her next companion. Questions lead to flirting lead to the controversial (at the time) lesbian sex scene. Put it side by side with the Wachowski BrothersBound and neither are particularly graphic, both are almost even tastefully erotic, which is certainly the goal in The Hunger. Post-coitus, Sarandon‘s character has to come to grips with the biological changes going on and the position that Deneuve has put her in with her husband. This segment of the film certainly provided some inspiration in the more earthy eighties vampire flicks, The Lost Boys and Near Dark.

Make no mistake, The Hunger is a triumph of production design and style that was anticipated by Tony‘s brother Ridley‘s sci-fi duo Alien and Blade Runner (particularly the latter). It has a fair bit of restrain when it comes to post-production though. All the crazy filters, text, film-stock manipulation of Tony Scott‘s 1990s and 2000s work (Domino being the extreme example) has not been discovered here. It certainly give The Hunger a visual purity, occasionally marred by the excess of candles, curtains and doves – Scott’s practical equivalent (compared to digital) of masturbatory excess. The ending may be a bit abrupt, and slightly contradictory, even nonsensical – yet there is a loud visual symmetry that continues the cycle (I’m guessing this image struck the production designers of Ghostbusters, particularly the Sigourney Weaver/Gatekeeper segment of the film.)

In the end, buried beneath all the goth-glamour and raw meat, there is an interesting motif of love, aging, and the price of companionship when one is immortal. That this is told visually instead of through dialogue certainly qualifies Mr. Scott giving a worthy contribution to the genre. In other words, gems like this one are the grist that keeps the mill turning.

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.

9 Comments

  1. I have to admit I am a bit fan of vampire movies. Much of this I suspect is due to having been raised on the classic Universal and Hammer films. Too, I think there is much about the vampire myth that speaks to many in a way, as you point out, that the cannibal film does not. Much of it is due to the sheer sexuality that has been part of the vampire myth for so long. But I think it goes beyond that. I think much of the appeal of the vampire myth lies in the idea that vampirism is to some degree a variation on the Faustian legend. A vampire has eternal life, eternal youth, and enormous power, but at a cost, only part of which is having to devour his fellow human beings. Too, I think the vampire myth touches upon fears of death and fears of life inherent in Western society. As Renfield says in the novel Dracula, "Blood is the life."

    Anyhow, I have always liked The Hunger. It is definitely a beautiful looking film. And I think David Bowie gives one of his best performances in the film. That having been said, I do think the film does have its flaws. I think it drags a bit when dealing with the science of vampirism. And, as you point out, the ending does seem a bit abrupt.

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  2. I really wish David Bowie made more films. The three or four films I've seen him in, he is encaptivating. Here is no exception. He really is good. Ditto on The Prestige, and his Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel's BASQUIAT is excellent as well.

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  3. i like scott more than most people i know, but The Hunger was self indulgent goth drivel. while i agree that there were hints of potential to examine the aspects of "love, aging, and the price of companionship" for the vampiric set, scott never allowed the movie to dip below the (albeit gorgeous looking) superficiality of the story into more substantial ground. couple that with sloppy pacing and you have an incomplete portrait of something that could have been worthwhile.

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  4. This has been my favorit film since i saw it in the 80's I sujest it to anyone not just vampire lovers. Its got so much to it that I cant beleive someone cant find something to love about it. Just from the actors to how it was filmed.

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  5. im a fan of the hunger 1983 film its shaped my life in some small way, i first saw it aged 16 and its become a friend. how potty is that. its not much more of a vampire film as a human one, (with twiggly bits thats the vampire bit). i have loved this film and its music score for more than 20 years now i still love watching it and it does the same goose bumps at the right places every time ive seen it. it must be over 60 times now or more. the music gets me every time.

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