“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.