Horror Film Review: The Hunger (dir by Tony Scott)


“Bela Lugosi’s dead….” Peter Murphy sings at the start of 1983’s The Hunger and, in the case of this film, it’s as much of a challenge as a tribute.

Bela Lugosi and Dracula are gone, the film announces, and so is the old-fashioned vampire movie.  Here’s a new look at an old favorite….

Of course, seen today, The Hunger doesn’t seem new.  Since The Hunger‘s release, there’s been  a countless number of films in which vampires have been decadent and chic aristocrats, hanging out in dark nightclubs and looking at the world with ennui-stricken eyes.  By today’s standards, the stylish decadence of The Hunger can seem almost quaint.  Much like Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People, The Hunger is such a film of the 80s that you half-expect someone to offer you a line coke while you’re watching it.  Also, like Cat People, it’s such a glorious tribute to excess that there’s no way you can’t watch it once it starts.  It’s hypnotic in its excess.

In The Hunger, our vampires are Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her lover, John (David Bowie).  Miriam has been a vampire since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians.  Rather than sinking her fangs into the necks of her victims, Miriam uses an Ankh pendant to slit their throats.  John was once a cellist in 18th century France.  Now, they live in an expensive New York townhouse, where they teach classical music and occasionally murder anyone that they can convince to come up to see them.

When they first met, Miriam promised John that he would have eternal life but she didn’t promise him eternal youth.  Unfortunately, it takes 200 years for John to notice.  When he starts to rapidly age, he seeks out aging expert Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) for help.  Though Dr. Roberts is originally dismissive of his claims, she is shocked to see John age several years in just an hour.

When an angry and desperate John kills the music student (Beth Ehlers) that Miriam was hoping to transform into her next lover, Miriam is forced to search elsewhere.  When Sarah shows up, searching for the man who aged years in an hour, Miriam feels that her search may be over.

As one might expect from a film directed by Tony Scott, The Hunger is an extremely stylish film, to the extent that the film’s story is often secondary to the way that Scott chooses to tell it.  The set design is so ornate and every scene is so precisely lit and shot and that, at times, the movie feels a bit like a commercial for vampirism.  It’s easy to imagine Britney Spears singing “Work Bitch” in the background of some of the scenes.  (“You want a hot body?  You want a Bugatti?  You Want a Maserati?  You better work vamp.”)  Throughout the film, New York glows like a neon wonderland while John and Miriam coolly look out over the world like 18th century French aristocrats who have no idea that they have a future date with the guillotine.  At times, it’s a film that becomes almost ludicrous in its celebration of grandeur and style.  One could imagine Jean Rollin telling the same story just as effectively while spending a lot less money.

And yet, it’s that very embrace of the over-the-top ludicrousness of it all that makes The Hunger a memorable film.  The film’s a tribute to excess, with an ending that falters precisely because it attempts to reject precisely what it’s spent the past hour and a half celebrating.  The Hunger doesn’t add up too much but its hypnotically stylish and well-acted by a cast who does their best to keep up with Tony Scott’s camera.

 

A Movie A Day #153: Blue Collar (1978, directed by Paul Schrader)


Three Detroit auto workers (played by Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor) are fed up.

It’s not just that management is constantly overworking them and trying to cheat them out of their money.  That’s what management does, after all.  What really upsets them is that their union is not doing anything to help.  While the head of the union is getting rich off of their dues and spending time at the White House, Keitel is struggling to pay for his daughter’s braces, Kotto is in debt to a loan shark, and Pryor is lying to the IRS about the number of children that he has.  (When a social worker shows up unexpectedly, Pryor’s wife recruits neighborhood children to pretend to be their’s.)  Kotto, Pryor, and Keitel plot to rob the union but instead, they just discover evidence of the union’s ties to the mob.  The union bosses will do anything to keep that information from being revealed, from trying to turn the friends against one another to committing murder.

Blue Collar was the directorial debut of screenwriter Paul Schrader.  Schrader has said that the three main cast members did not get along during the filming, with Richard Pryor apparently bringing a gun to the set and announcing that there was no way he was going to do more than three takes of any scene.  The tension between the lead actors is visible in the film, with all three of them giving edgy and angry performances.  That anger is appropriate because Blue Collar is one of the few films to try to honestly tackle what it’s like to be a member of the “working class” in America.  While management is presented as being a bunch of clowns, Blue Collar reserves its greatest fury for the corrupt union bosses who claim to represent the workers but who, instead, are just exploiting them.  The characters in Blue Collar are pissed off because they know that nobody’s got their back.  To both management and the union, the workers are worth less than the cars that they spend all day putting together and the money that can be subtracted from all their already meager pay checks.

Since it’s a Paul Schrader film from 1978, the action in Blue Collar does come to a halt, 40 minutes in, for a cocaine-fueled orgy that feels out of place.  While Keitel and especially Kotto give believable performances, Pryor sometimes seems to be struggling to keep up.  Still, flaws and all, Blue Collar has a raw and authentic feel to it, something that few other movies about the working class have been able to capture.  Perhaps because it never sentimentalizes its characters or their situation, Blue Collar was not a box office success but it has stood the test of time better than many of the other films that were released that same year.  Sadly overlooked, Blue Collar is a classic American movie.

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 10: The Substitute (dir. by Robert Mandel)


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The most recent entry in the Guilty Pleasure series had Lisa Marie waxing poetically about the idealistic teacher in the “jungle” film The Principal. I counter and follow this up with a similar-themed film called The Substitute that came and went very quickly in the theaters (I’m not even sure if it did or just went straight to video) in 1996.

The Substitute stars veteran actor Tom Berenger (you may remember him in such films as Platoon, Major League and Sniper) as a Vietnam vet mercenary who ends up substituting as the substitute teacher for his girlfriend’s high school class as she recovers from an attack that has left her unable to teach. The girlfriend was played by one Diane Venora who in the very same year was in another little film called Heat by Michael Mann. These two polar opposite films in terms of their “quality” just shows you that when it comes to acting, unless one was a recognizable name then any role is a good role it seems.

Getting back to the film, Berenger’s character is the titular substitute in one of Miami’s worst inner-city high schools where, as the film’s tagline proudly proclaims, the most dangerous things about it was the students. That is until Berenger’s character shows up to find out who attacked his girlfriend and bring down the wrath of God himself (or at least Berenger’s character and members of his old mercenary team).

The film isn’t what one would call very subtle. We clearly see either two types of teachers in this school. There’s Berenger and his girlfriend who care for the young teens (the former woth tough love and the latter going about it in a more liberal sense) and then there are those who have given up on the school and just cashing in on a paycheck. This goes to the extreme with the school’s principal (played by Ernie Hudson) who begins to suspect that the new substitute might be more than he appears.

It’s the passive-aggressive interaction between the two roles played by Berenger and Hudson that made for some of the more hilarious sequences in the film.

Oh, another thing the film also involves a dangerous high school gang that uses the school as if it’s their own little fiefdom and the local drug kingpin using it as a way station to move heroin into the Miami inner-city school system. Oh, did I happen to mention that Marc Anthony plays the leader of the high school gang, because he sure does.

The Substitute almost plays out like how a teacher fed up with the inattentiveness of his students and the stress of doing a thankless job imagines the perfect scenario to “clean-up” the high school. It’s not through coddling and talking things out with the students. It’s about using military tactics to take out the dangers of gangs and drug dealers and tough love on those who are still worth saving.

Some have called the film as blatantly racist while others have pointed out how it is just an extreme version of the longstanding storyline of the educated and civilized white man saving the “natives” from themselves. What this film has over other school films of similar themes is how it doesn’t try to sugarcoat and hide behind ideals when it comes to it’s story. Plus, it’s such a guilty pleasure to see a typical 80’s action flick dressed up to be a late 90’s film. They really don’t make films like this anymore.