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The Hunger
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1983 / Color / 2:40 enhanced widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date August 18, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Ann Magnuson, Shane Rimmer, Bessie Love, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe.
Cinematography
Stephen Goldblatt
Production Design Brian Morris
Special Makeup Effects Dick Smith
Art Director Clinton Cavers
Set Decorator Ann Mollo
Costume Design Milena Canonero
Film Editor Pamela Power
Original Music Denny Jaeger, Michel Rubini
Written by Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas from the novel by Whitley Streiber
Produced by Richard Shepherd
Directed byTony Scott

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tony Scott’s The Hunger has gotten a bad rap since day one, for all the wrong reasons. Not only was Scott making the jump from directing slick TV commercials (by way of slick music videos), he was said to be riding on the coattails of his successful brother Ridley Scott. The Hunger sounds like a movie marketers’ dream. It’s a modern dress revisionist vampire movie filmed just before fashion-conscious bloodsuckers hijacked the genre, and a full generation before undead horror became grist for the teen romance mill. It’s unashamedly arty. It has the swankiest French actress around, at least in terms of American sensibilities. It’s got David Bowie in the mix to promise more kinks — Bowie’s singing career was built around flexible sexual identities. And finally there’s the promise of nude scenes with Susan Sarandon, prime heterosexual bait and an excellent actress to boot. An ice queen, a sex chameleon and the woman who titillated both sexes by massaging her breasts with lemon juice in a Louis Malle movie. Who cares that the nudity was off-screen? It was the hottest scene of the decade.

Whitley Streiber’s novel took the timely approach of de-mytholoigizing vampires, making them semi-human, functionally immortal but with limitations. Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is the only vampire with a potentially supernatural origin, as she’s been around since Egyptian days. Obviously, being an undying, non-aging vampire queen gives one time to learn to play the piano, but it also might make one very lonely. Miriam can pass on both her sanguine addiction and enhanced longevity to any mortal she chooses. She does this to one person at a time, to serve as a trophy companion vampire through the long years. Since they both need fresh victims at the rate of one a week, Miriam resides in New York City, a place sufficiently crowded that disappearances won’t be quickly traced. Her present companion John (David Bowie) has only been ‘undead’ for 200 years, yet he suddenly begins to rapidly age, indicating that his time is up. He tries to see Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a specialist in the aging process. Miriam has seen Sarah promoting a new book. She and Roberts soon get together. The prospect couldn’t be clearer: they’re mutually attracted, and Miriam will be needing a new companion. The problem is that she can’t afford to give Sarah a choice in the matter.

Streiber’s Wolfen had recently been made into an interesting, somewhat awkward horror thriller that was mostly ignored. The Hunger became an easy critical target for cinema pundits with an axe to grind. It’s all style. It looks like a perfume ad. Scenes not taking place on ordinary streets (about two minutes of footage) have all been worked through five levels of visual and contextual stylization, from settings to costumes to makeup to the elegant cinematography of Stephen Goldblatt. Commercial directors are intent on nailing every visual with absolute precision, and Goldblatt comes across with the kind of accuracy that visually unites movies by directors as diverse as Francis Coppola and John Patrick Shanley. Tony Scott begins with a literal Bauhaus music video, intercutting the disco-punk song ‘Bela Lugosi is Dead’ with relevant image snippets of the imperious Miriam Blaylock. Lugosi, vampires, music videos … it’s all rather pat. Scott then proceeds to soak the screen in atmospheric effects, shooting through screens, nets, gratings, and especially flowing diaphanous curtains. Every composition is studied. Characters are seen in silhouette, long-shot and extreme close-up.

Miriam’s life is one long fashion shoot, all effortless grace and polished surfaces. There’s not much mystery to her — the mask-face Deneuve shows in many of her movies is so perfect that we wouldn’t know if her character was plotting bloody murder or merely pouting. Ms. Sarandon’s doctor is given a reel’s worth of perfunctory scenes in the lab, worrying about her experiments with early aging in monkeys. This material is just there to put the focus on mortality vs. immortality. We barely pay attention, even with the disturbing video footage of an afflicted monkey, and another stop-motion animation scene (Dave Allen?) of a monkey decaying in time-lapse video, like a Morlock of olde.

Susan Sarandon forms an attractive complement to Deneuve, with her healthy, frankly sexual appeal. Everybody would want to kiss her neck, not just her boyfriend Cliff De Young. The short hairstyle is terrific, too. We look guiltily forward to promised Miriam-Sarah sex scenes.

Everything we see is exquisitely designed and styled to heighten the neo-Goth glamour, and evade dull details. There’s never a problem of disposing of bodies even though enough blood is spilled to leak out onto the sidewalk. Miriam’s townhouse is immaculate, as are her clothes and a succession of spectacular hairstyles that would make Grace Kelly turn purple with envy. Yet the, Blaylocks have no servants, no support help. It’s like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, who lives in a filthy crypt yet manages to show up at the opera dressed to the nines and apparently not smelling like the corpse that he is.

Scott’s glamorous imagery works in that we don’t worry about these things, but it doesn’t connect with much of anything deeper. We get the mechanics of what’s going on, but that’s because somebody speaks up every six minutes or so and explains it to us. Or there’s a flashback to the Georgian stable where Lady Chatterly Miriam first met John. An Egyptian boudoir is the movie’s only unconvincing set. The Hunger lacks depth. We see swirling gauze curtains or another precise atmospheric effect, and it’s just a pretty picture. Paul Leni’s silent haunted house murder mystery The Cat and the Canary has similar ‘atmosphere’ shots in a hallway of slowly billowing curtains. They pull us into a ‘spooky place,’ almost subliminally. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is almost all ‘atmosphere.’ Shots hang around too long, making us nervous because we’re not quite sure we’re understanding. We barely have a handle on the relationships, and even then people act in weirdly contradictory ways. Vampyr conveys and uncanny sense of the unknowable. Narrative concerns are barely considered.

The Hunger has some genuinely macabre things going on, such as Miriam stashing her undead, apparently conscious lovers in boxes in the attic. We ought to think of those game dames Queen Antinea and Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, both of whom displayed their ex-consorts in a hall of mummified exhibits. Poor Miriam only has a stack of boxes gathering cobwebs in the attic; there’s no glamour to be had up there at all. Instead of pondering the horror of eternal conscious entombment, we’re wondering how Miriam has managed to cart her filing system around through the ages. The same issues bog down the later glam-gothic horror reveries of Anne Rice, where vampirism is just another form of jet-set living, suitable for ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Undead.’

Where The Hunger really succeeds is with the David Bowie character. John is a robust lover and co-predator with his wife of 200 years, but in a matter of a couple of days he degenerates from full health to a shriveled bald guy. The transformation’s early stages are sensationally good, both with Bowie’s performance and the special makeup by Carl Fullerton and Dick Smith. 1   Bowie’s neck thins out, develops a wattle and his skin changes texture. His face droops and hollows in a way that does not suggest rubber appliances glued into place. Tony Scott must have listened to his experts, for the camera angles handle the decomposition perfectly. One day later Bowie’s John is deep into Dick Smith sculpted makeup territory, and it’s all still working well. Smith’s famous old-age work for Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man had big problems despite succeeding on surprise value alone. Twelve years later, Dick Smith’s skin textures on Bowie are amazingly real looking. John mentions liver spots, setting us up for the real evidence of aging. That the ‘old’ John’s skin is so pasty-pulpy isn’t a mistake, because although he’s aged 80 (or 150?) years, his body has been exposed to just a few days of ‘weathering.’

We’re told that the ending was altered to make room for a possible sequel. The predictable twist is fine by me, but I’m not sure what exactly happened to spoil Miriam’s setup at the end. Having a room full of moldy ex-husbands come to life is admittedly not an everyday scene. And the effects-meisters do great work having them crumble on camera, their bones snapping under the weight of their bodies. It’s a technical triumph… but in service of a standard horror movie clich&eacute. What exactly triggered this orgy of decomposition? Miriam must have broken some rule laid down back in Cairo 2,000 years ago … don’t get the vampires wet or feed them after midnight, or something.  2

With all its fancy imagery The Hunger is still a pedestrian piece of commercial storytelling. If I recall correctly, we were there for thrills, mainly the promised sex scenes. It’s still movie stars getting it on with each other, with the occasional cutaways to a body double for Ms. Deneuve. A woman is with a woman which technically makes it a Lesbian encounter, until the focus turns to sampling blood from the inside of each other’s elbows. The most erotic shot is a close-up of Sarandon sucking blood, but Scott makes sure it’s also placed at an artistic remove. It’s a soft-focus Clairol love scene, without long dissolves but with everybody’s hair in perfect place. Still, this is one department where The Hunger makes good on its promises. Our stars deliver like classic-era movie legends, each contributing the fantasy we want to see. Tony Scott’s arty approach may be artless, but he’s doing his best to make an upscale erotic horror picture, and who wants to complain about that? His career problem was going from this promising picture to an immensely popular Reagan-era atrocity, one that would negatively influence action filmmaking for decades.

Ann Magnuson gets mauled by Bowie in one scene, while Dan Hedaya is an investigating cop and Beth Ehlers a violin prodigy who drops in on the Blaylock’s once too often. Willem Dafoe and John Pankow have a good bit in a street scene, seemingly padded to give them more than 2.5 seconds of screen time.  3

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Hunger is the first really watchable encoding of this picture that I’ve seen. It looks and sounds really good, erasing the vague memories of pan-scan “Z-Channel” cable showings, where the mannered Panavision images were reduced to unreadable wide shots and too-tight close-ups. It is a very attractive movie, packed with trendy images.

The movie’s trailer sells the sex and the sizzle, hoping to ignite curiosity about the Deneuve-Sarandon scenes. It’s sort of upscale-trashy, actually. The director commentary, apparently from 2003 or so, is a very nice listen. Tony Scott is candid and self-aware; he’s clearly proud of his movie and spends a lot of time praising the work of his technical and artistic contributors. I found him not at all pompous but a practical filmmaker who wanted to apply his commercial skills to the big screen, an approach that worked well for several directors in the 1980s. He also tells us that almost all of the New York-set film was shot in London, a trick very neatly pulled off. Susan Sarandon appears on the commentary as well (apparently not with Scott) to offer candid remarks about how she took on the movie and why. Her comments on the sex scenes are great, as are her memories of her first scene kissing a woman, the nudity (by day two everybody on the crew was bored) and how she explained these racy roles to her growing children. She’s always been a classy actress and personality.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hunger Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Tony Scott and Susan Sarandon
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 16, 2015

Footnotes:


1. The artists Fullerton and Smith are given the credit, ‘Makeup Illusions,’ which may have had something to do with filming in England … ? Effects makeup wizards were already being feted and billed like stars, but not the legend Smith.

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2. I immediately thought of the most successful shot of this kind I can remember, from Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula: the vampire’s hand crumbles in the act of flexing fingers, as if his flesh had suddenly turned to vacuum cleaner dust. The crumbling corpses in The Hunger seem to be changing from preserved flesh, to chalk, to flaky mulch. Those poor effects people have to study morgue shots and grisly file images to get these ‘Guanajuato Mummy’ effects. It’s superb.

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3. A vaguely related movie would seem to be Roddy McDowall’s unfortunate The Ballad of Tam Lin with Ava Gardner. She’s not a vampire, but she’s definitely a supernatural being who seduces male consorts into a living death, a sort of ‘social limbo.’

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Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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