Judge Brett Cullum suggests grilled cheese sammiches if you have The Hunger—not human blood. Mmm.... grilled cheese sammiches!
Sarah Roberts : What's that piece you're playing?
The Hunger has been on my wish list of "movies that need DVD treatment" for years, and finally Warner Brothers has released it. The film is important for several reasons: it's the debut effort of director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Man on Fire, and brother to Ridley); The Hunger was never suited for pan-and-scan presentation and has had poor quality releases on VHS and laserdisc; and its love scene between Catherine Deneuve (Dancer in the Dark, countless French films) and Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise, Dead Man Walking) remains infamously scandalous and beautifully haunting. The entire film is gorgeously shot, and it's primed for the digital age. A previous laserdisc edition existed, and I feared they would port that transfer on to a digital disc. Thankfully that is not the case. The Hunger is a contemporary cult classic and deserves respect. Though it was never a critical or box office success, it continues to influence films with its art school self-conscious approach and noir sense of style. It heralded a new direction for vampire stories, and showcased a new aesthetic to film that both Scott brothers were instrumental in forming.
Facts of the Case
Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve) is a vampire who can take a lover every three hundred years. She's part of a race whose blood is stronger than that of mere mortals, and she can triple the span of a human's life with a simple bite and some mutual sucking. They will be youthful and healthy as long as they feed on human blood once every few days and sleep deeply for at least six hours. The problem is they begin aging rapidly at a certain point, but can never die. Their bodies fail them, and Miriam then shuttles them into a pine box in her attic where they remain for an eternity—fully aware, but too fragile to move. The Hunger was based on a Whitley Streiber (Wolfen, Communion) novel of the same name. Many loyal fans of the book criticize the simplification of the story, as well as the alterations to the plot, but the book was hardly filmable in 1983. Miriam had silver eyes and an extremely long tongue that would be easy for a CGI artist to create today, but was near impossible twenty years ago. The novel was also crammed with lengthy flashbacks that drifted in and out of remote historical locales. Frankly, it had to be simplified to make it into a feature-length movie.
The movie begins with Miriam and her current lover John (rock icon David Bowie) hunting prey at a Manhattan punk club. Peter Murphy of the New Wave band Bauhaus lip-syncs their club hit "Bela Lugosi's Dead" in one of the most effective openings ever committed to celluloid. From the first frame the audience knows that this is not the classic vampire story by any stretch of the imagination. When it comes time for our vampires to dispatch the unlucky couple they have chosen, they rip off their stylish Ankh pendants and cut their necks to ribbons with a hidden blade. Shortly after their killing spree, we notice John is having trouble sleeping, and he begins to look more and more haggard. He is beginning the process that will lead to his rapid aging, so the pair begin to search for a scientist who might have some ideas for a cure. They find Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), who is part of a team that has had some success in speeding up the clock, and who hope to find a way to slow it down as well. She thinks John is a kook when he explains his condition, and leaves him waiting in her lobby while he ages significantly over a couple of hours.
Soon John is disabled, and Miriam has to chose a new partner. She sets her sights on Sarah, and seduces the good doctor. Sarah is trapped in a horrifying transition from human to monster, and she has to decide whether to fight her fate or succumb to living as a vampire for the next three centuries.
The Hunger seems like a brother's response to Ridley's Blade Runner. Both movies are concerned with lifespans (one very long, the other quite abbreviated) and hunting humans (or recreations of them). Both films adopt a smoky noir sensibility, and both defined a new standard in how productions could look and feel. The Hunger is a vampire noir film set in the only decade it could ever work, the '80s. The vampirism also seemed to be a response to the burgeoning AIDS crisis of the era, with the scientists frantically looking at blood and its connections to longevity. Much like Blade Runner it was not received well critically, and audiences didn't take much notice of the movie in its initial release. The film was ahead of its time, and remains a favorite of rabid fans who still champion the film as a cult hit.
The film was more concerned with style than anything concretely human, and Tony Scott gave it a self-conscious tone that put many people off. He skillfully manipulated colors like blue and green so well that often the film almost seems to be black and white. His editing was breakneck in parts, and mirrored the style of MTV, which has now become accepted. The music becomes a third character as beautiful Bach trios merge with Iggy Pop and Bauhaus to create a sonic landscape of painterly proportions. Physically, every aspect is jaw dropping and beautiful…the sets, clothes, and even the gore are handled artistically. The wardrobe mistress came from Kubrick's stable, and the make-up is flawless (and won the movie an Oscar nomination).
Sometimes it feels like a horror movie trapped in the middle of a fashion shoot. Even though the film is set in Manhattan, most of it was shot in London. Every locale has an old Gothic feel to it, from Miriam's townhouse to the research lab Sarah works in. It's an art house horror movie of dizzying heights.
The cast is sublime. Catherine Deneuve is one of the screen's great legends; immortal in her beauty and a natural choice for a mythic vampire. She has an ethereal alien air that is scary and seductive all at once. British rock legend David Bowie also was an easy choice for a vampire. He has an amazing amount of charisma, and his transformation into a very old man is handled as well physically as it was by Dick Smith's revolutionary make-up process. Then we have the punk edge of a young Susan Sarandon who lent the production a smart American voice. She looks like a young Bowie (circa Ziggy Stardust) with her masculine short red hair, and she plays the addiction and blood lust for all its worth. Interestingly Sarandon joins Tom Cruise as the only actor to have worked with both Scotts.
You can also catch early glimpses of Willem Dafoe and Ann Magnuson in supporting roles. Almost everyone in the film already looked like fashionable vampires, down to a young Beth Ehlers (Guiding Light). The word "vampire" is never uttered in the film, and the condition is treated both scientifically and as a sexually transmitted disease. There are no bothersome rules such as coffins or avoiding daylight in the world of The Hunger. It's deeply erotic in source, which leads to the film's most infamous scene, where Miriam seduces Sarah. The sequence is handled tastefully, but remains as one of the most visually stunning representations of a love scene put on film. Deneuve used a body double for the frontal shots, but Sarandon bravely flaunts her body in an unapologetic way. It's pretty hot even by today's standards.
The entire movie plays as one long seduction, and the pace even reflects this aspect. It lingers on its characters, objectifying each one as a beautiful statue of classical study. The transfer was created from an old print Tony Scott held on to in a private vault somewhere. The color has been digitally enhanced, and it creates a more hyper palette than the movie has ever seen. There are some grainy scenes, but the film retains its beautiful luster. The laserdisc and VHS versions were severely washed-out; but here every color is perfectly tweaked, except for some of the blues, which seem to pop a little unnaturally. It's a wonderful transfer overall, and the movie didn't look this clear or vibrant even in theaters back in April of 1983. Too bad they didn't retool the audio. It's a monaural mix that is theatrically correct, but severely antiquated these days. Pity too, because many effective changes could have been employed with the classical soundtrack to make the film that much more effective. There is a wonderful commentary with director Tony Scott and Susan Sarandon that is newly recorded with each participant separate from the other. Scott laughs at his own shortcomings with the project, and comes off as a good sport who knows when he is on target. Sarandon is amazingly low-key and funny as well, relating stories about the cast and changes the studio demanded that effected her performance. She says this was her first love scene, and she was proud to share that honor with Deneuve (one of her heroes).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Definitely not a film for all tastes. Many people have slighted The Hunger for its art house qualities, saying it was languid and pretentious. Ebert railed against it, saying it existed for only one purpose: the love scene (the man has an obsession with lesbians). Others claimed it was hard to follow and desperately hollow. Columbia Studios actually removed Tony Scott from his next directing project and placed it in the hands of John Carpenter (that movie was Starman). Its definitely not your typical horror film, and it's still not for the squeamish or prudish. Both Ridley Scott and Tony came from the commercial world, and they used their advertising techniques to give their films a unique look that often muted anything around them. It was like they were too artful for their own good. Ridley seems to handle this dichotomy better than Tony.
And what about that strange ending? According to Tony Scott and Susan Sarandon there was a tag to the ending that the studio demanded in case they wanted to pursue a sequel. So things had to be left open. It violates some of the themes and rules of the movie, but is handled well enough given the circumstances. It does make some logical sense beyond the violation of one character's morality.
The Hunger holds up nicely. We fear aging today, twenty years later, more than we did then, and its leads have defied aging themselves. Deneuve and Bowie could remake this movie tomorrow and look about the same. Modern audiences will have an easier time with the editing style that seemed so jarring in 1983. It still looks like a product of its era, but it's beautiful and well-crafted. It's a movie that revels in its excess, and we've become more accustomed to that. It was way ahead of its time. Goths and vampire fans will love it, and so will fans of any of the actors involved. The Hunger has haunted me for years, and it ranks with Blade Runner as a film that I can watch again and again and never tire of seeing.
Stunning and eye popping, its one of the most beautiful films ever to be labeled a horror classic. The Hunger and its cast and crew are free to go and hunt down new victims in any disco they chose. But please, no more of that ghastly cable show that bared its name! Warner Brothers should have one ear chopped off for leaving this cult hit in mono.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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