The Hunger (1983)

30 Oct

Catherine Deneuve is far too cool for school.

On paper, “The Hunger” seems like a film that’s ripe for rediscovery. Billed as an erotic thriller and starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon, the idea that it’s also a vampire movie is quite intriguing. With sexy vamp tales being all the rage now, this combo seems like something that is in line with current tastes. I had hoped for the sort of smart, sophisticated horror that arises from the mixture of strong artistic vision and quality acting. Unfortunately, “The Hunger” is overly concerned with a lone aspect of its story, and the film suffers for that single-mindedness.

Dangerously beautiful Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve), along with her husband John (Bowie), prey upon humans for sustenance. She is immortal, and she has told John he is as well. The film opens with the pair of them seducing a young couple at a gothic nightclub with a live performance from Bauhaus accompanying the sequence. The Blaylocks live in a grandiose New York townhouse and appear idle, wealthy and aloof, their only companionship coming from young neighbor Alice Cavender (Beth Ehlers), a promising violinist.

Complications arise when John begins having trouble sleeping. He worries and paces the floors of his home, feeling a change in his body. This subtle shift, noticed first by Alice who tells him he looks awful, quickly becomes undeniable: John is aging, and far more rapidly than is humanly possible. He fears he may not live through the end of the week.

Hope comes in the form of scientific researcher Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a sleep disorder specialist who is working with a team studying the effects of sleep on aging. They have discovered ways to speed the aging process in primates, but no way as of yet to reverse it. Miriam is first intrigued by the research, but then becomes fascinated by the scientist herself. As John struggles with his impending demise, he must turn to Sarah, the one human who may hold an answer … and the one human who poses a threat to his relationship with Miriam.

I guess Sapphic afternoon delight was a given after "Rocky Horror," huh?

“The Hunger” is only tangentially a vampire movie. You won’t find any fangs or bloodfeasts here. Miriam and John are almost austere in their feeding habits. Even their tandem seduction of the unfortunate couple at the film’s open is fairly tame — a few kisses, some ripped clothing, and then a small dagger to the neck. A few drops of blood smear on Miriam’s mouth, and that’s about as gory as it gets. For all their implied power and mysterious ways, the Blaylocks are decidedly non-threatening. The vampire element is so downplayed that it’s obvious it’s not the point of this film.

Instead, the love “triangle” aspect is at forefront, although I feel it’s a bit misleading to categorize the relationships in that way. The entire movie seems built around and designed for the admittedly sensual love scene between Miriam and Sarah. Even though the sequence isn’t as unexpected or shocking as it might have been in 1983, it’s still a great, steamy sex scene. The rest of the movie that follows, unfortunately, doesn’t match its intensity or emotion. Characterization in ‘The Hunger” is off-puttingly odd. Miriam and John have limited interaction, and beyond Miriam and Sarah’s afternoon romp, theirs too is a distant relationship. For a film depending more on the power of its emotional connections rather than its horror elements, it seems a questionable choice to test the believability of those connections so rigorously.

Glimpses of deep emotion are all the audience is given, but those moments are wonderful. David Bowie is a perfect choice for the barely restrained John Blaylock, and he delivers a lovely performance here. Blaylock’s fear and pain channel into an impotent rage, and Bowie goes for it without fear. His is the most emotionally convincing performance in the film as well as the most thrilling. It is, of course, a joy to watch Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in their respective roles. Deneuve brings a weighty gravitas to an otherwise unanchored plot, and Sarandon, at this point yet to have found a showcase for her considerable talent, shows she can hold her own. The seduction-by-conversation scene between Miriam and Sarah is a delight as much for what isn’t being said as what is, and that’s due to the straight performances from two great actresses.

I've never understood people who claim to not "get" the sex appeal of David Bowie.

But despite some sparks of greatness, “The Hunger” gets bogged down with pacing issues and fails to resolve some major plot problems. While audiences may be willing to take a lot on faith with a vampire movie, some discussion of vampire “rules” is typically expected. The Blaylocks seem to be able to go out in the sun, they don’t appear to have fangs, and they don’t need to feed often. (Miriam at one point states she feeds once every seven days). A lot of this runs counter to typical vampire folklore, which is fine — heaven knows in a world where we have sparkly vamps avoiding direct sunlight anything is possible — but it would be nice to have an idea of where these immortals stand. This is a film which is challengingly slow; the pacing seems deliberately designed to bolster the luxe lifestyle of the Blaylocks, but the relentless lingering becomes tiresome. The slow circling shots of the gilded Blaylock townhouse are lovely, but overdone. The nearly balletic early coffin sequence is gorgeous, but its redux goes on for far too long; it definitely begins to feel  like time that would’ve been better spent creating a more compelling story.

The real problem is ‘The Hunger” isn’t at all what it claims to be: It’s a vampire movie without any of the typical vampire trappings. It bills itself as a kinky love triangle when it’ s more like a series of sensual encounters. It wears the disguise of a thriller but ends up being slow and plodding. The strength of its considerable visual artistry and undeniably cool aura of gothic glamour — not to mention flashes of brilliance from its principals — just aren’t enough to overcome the film’s many problems. Two stars out of four.

The Hunger“: Rated R. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, David Bowie, Cliff De Young, and Beth Ehlers. Attentive eyes will also see a young Willem Dafoe working as an extra. He’s billed as “2nd Phone Booth Youth.” Directed by Tony Scott. Written by James Costigan, Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas from the novel by Whitley Strieber. Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt. Original music by Danny Jaeger and Michel Rubini.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: