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A question of Hemoglobin
on July 7, 2006
Among the 674 films (so far) that have vampires as subject matter, Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983) distinguishes itself with its romantic, mythic, and erotic atmosphere, and of course the torrid sex scene (at least for the time) involving Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. The film is dark; its aesthetic is cold and sophisticated. In the years following its first screening, the acting, beauty of its images, and rather complex intrigue have transformed this unusual film into a major milestone of American film production of the 1980s, and for the fantastic and gay cinema genres.
As the film credits roll and the film begins, the gothic rock group Bauhaus is heard playing their famous song, Bela Lugosi's Dead, a nod to one of the most famous interpreters of Count Dracula in vampire films.
The action takes place in present-day New York. The beautiful and elegant Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) shares a life of luxury and indolence with her husband John (David Bowie). Miriam, born in Egypt some 4,000 years ago, is an immortal being. Her continued survival depends on a diet of human blood, which she must consume once every seven days. She is also able to pass along, through "friendly" bites, some of her genetic material to human beings, thereby turning them into creatures like herself, in exchange for their eternal love. Miriam belongs to an ancient race of vampires, but since in life nothing is perfect, her progeny are not truly immortal as she is, and sooner or later, usually after 300 years or so, they find themselves suddenly and rapidly getting old. However, the progeny are unable to die, but continue to live forever withered, in a fully conscious, vegetative state. Miriam "packs" their decaying, aging bodies in caskets that she keeps in the attic of her residence. In the 18th century, Miriam offered this "gift of immortality to John, who eagerly accepted, as had all her previous lovers through the ages.
Every seven days, Miriam and John hunt the trendy New York night clubs, searching for victims. These, they escort back to their sumptuous townhouse where they satisfy their hunger for human blood. They carry around their necks matching Egyptian Ankh pendants that conceal the razor-sharp blades with which they cut the jugular of their victims. After, they dispose of their victims' bodies in an incinerator located in the basement of their residence.
Suddenly, John develops trouble sleeping, and starts aging at a tremendous rapid rate. Miriam and John are both aware of the significance of this happening. Miriam goes looking for a famous gerontologist, Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), desperately seeking her help for a cure for John's fast deterioration. She makes contact with Dr. Roberts, and through her psychic powers, finds out that the doctor is just "guessing," and that her research is inconclusive. Therefore, John, as all her lovers before him, is doomed to extinction. John also attempts, unsuccessfully, to meet with Dr. Roberts. Eventually, John falls down a flight of stairs at the townhouse, his legs no longer able to support his own weight. Miriam carries John's withering body up to the attic and puts him in a casket, next to several other caskets containing her earlier lovers.
Later on, when Dr. Roberts shows up at Miriam's door looking for John, Miriam sees in the doctor a replacement for John in her life; it is love at first sight for Miriam, and she immediately proceeds to seduce the good doctor. I will not recount the details of the rest of the film, but just mention that the remainder of the film consists of Sarah's seduction by Miriam who takes her as her new lover, their temporary and uncertain relationship, Sarah's unwillingness to live as an "addict," and Miriam's subsequent "punishment."
The Hunger is adapted from Whitley Strieber's novel of the same title (Strieber is also the author of Wolfen) by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, who wrote the scenario. Following the deconstruction and alteration of the vampire legend with Anne Rice's book, Interview with the Vampire (1979), and Frank Langella's film, Dracula (1979), Tony Scott made a definitely "modern" film by doing away with all the old clichés and myths attached to the commonly accepted vampire lore. Scott's vampires move about in full daylight, there is no mention of garlic or crucifixes, the vampires have no fangs, and the word "vampire" is not even pronounced once in the entire film. Scott proceeds by opposition: the rhythm is at times dry and nervous, and at other times tender and lascivious; the protagonists inhabit an elegant, airy townhouse located in a large metropolis instead of a traditional dark, gloomy castle. Scott prefers the beauty and sophistication of the trio whose elegant garments are in stark contrast to the inherent hideousness and monstrosity of the traditional characters and their tattered, grimy attire. He substitutes a delicate daylight chiaroscuro for the night, and he replaces the traditional funereal music with one of J.S. Bach's graceful Suites, an aria from DeLibe's opera, Lakmé, trios by Lalo and Schubert, and the unsettling Ravel's Le Gibet.
The cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt gives to the image a combination of the gloss of a deluxe art magazine and the sensation of a gothic novel. The subdued, vaporous blues and greens colors of the interior scenes are awe-inspiring, and Tony's editing is MTV-like. The original music by Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger comes and reinforces the morbid, gothic atmosphere of the film.
David Bowie appearance is relatively brief, and it is his charismatic presence rather than his acting which is memorable, although the scene of his rapid aging as he waits for Sarandon's return is unforgettable (and so is his withering, thanks to Dick Smith's make-up wizardry). A seductive, frightening, and thoroughly elegant Catherine Deneuve, "La Belle Catherine," is sublime in one of her most sophisticated roles. Her enigmatic presence dominates the film from its very beginning to its end. Susan Sarandon is remarkable undergoing her incongruous evolution from a dedicated, successful doctor to a somewhat willing participant in her transformation into a blood-lusting vampire.
Of course, The Hunger became notorious for its Sapphic erotic scene between these two famous actresses. The scene is tactfully rendered, although still rather shocking to American audiences at the time. The seduction of Sarah proceeds with Miriam injecting her with some of her genetic material through a tender bite in the hollow of Sarah's arm, to the music of the (too) well-known women's duet from Léo Delibes' Lakmé. While this beautiful music may seem appropriate, I find it a bit too obvious, and somewhat too "cliché." But, contrary to the usual seduction of the damsel found in the more classic vampire films, we clearly get the feeling that her seduction is not necessarily against her nature, and that she surrenders willingly to this forbidden love. In The Celluloid Closet (1995), a documentary film on the homosexuality in the cinema, Susan Sarandon comments on this particular scene, which made Catherine Deneuve somewhat of an lesbian and gay icône (which, it is said, the actress enjoys immensely).
The film's ending is a great disappointment. It parts totally from the Strieber novel's ending, which most likely was what Tony Scott intended. The studio, thinking that Strieber's original conclusion would be immoral, imposed instead on the Director an ending where Miriam is actually being "punished," violating in the process all the themes and rules on which the film was based.
Although one would not expect in most cases a worthwhile theme(s) to be associated with a vampire film, except with Bram Stocker's original Dracula (1897), there are several themes in The Hunger. The first theme is that of addiction, in this particular situation, an addiction to blood in exchange not for a high, but for immortality. The second theme is that of the fear of aging and death. This theme is explicitly present in the first half of the film, when John realizes that time is catching up with him at an alarming speed, and he mounts a desperate and vain effort to stop its ravages. It is also implicit in the second half of the film, as Miriam had found "the solution." However, this "solution" has become the raison d'être of her apparently endless life, to the exclusion of everything else.
The Hunger is a very experimental film and more than twenty years following its first screening, it remains a unique cinematographic experience. I would have given it at least a four-star rating, but for its ending, I give it three stars.