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The Front Row

‘The Hunger’ is the right amount of slim pickings

Quarantine Film Fest — “The Hunger” (1983), dir. Tony Scott

Bauhaus’ live performance of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in the opening credits poetically tells us right away that this isn’t going to be your grandaddy’s vampire flick. And right away we’re into the sex and bloodletting that, in this case, is required to keep David Bowie’s John Blaylock a youthful thirty-something and to have a few more good years with his 6,000 year old lover Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve). We find out later that she took him around 300 years ago, and that she became one with the undead sometime around the BCs. The couple currently poses as eccentrics who give music lessons — of course they do. Anyway, because “Bela Lugosi IS dead,” what these vampires are after isn’t necessarily the typical recruiting new members into the unholy club of the eternal damned, and killing these vampires isn’t the typical crucifix and stake to the heart. What John and Miriam are more interested in and more expressly what they’re requiring is to fulfill their hunger, which as we find out is needed to keep them in a well-suited goth / yuppie hybrid lifestyle — and I think we have to agree is more fun than eternal decrepitude. But not only does John need youthful blood to keep him in his prime, he also needs sleep and he’s not getting enough of that either.

Title screen from “The Hunger.”

John discovers Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), who is researching the connection between sleep and longevity, and he attempts to see the good doctor to no avail. Doctor Roberts feeds him a line and ends up making him wait long enough to literally cause him to age 15 years — perhaps more of an allegory for waiting rooms than it deserves to be. Bowie’s aging in this scene is done so brilliantly and so subtly you almost aren’t sure it’s even happening. Maybe it’s the dim lighting or maybe the make-up is that good, or maybe it’s both, but the aging techniques employed are some of the most believable I’ve seen in a film, eased along by useful editing that keeps the entire event from being cheesy.

The now truly decrepit John goes home and takes in cello student, the young Alice Cavender (Beth Ehlers) — rhymes with cadaver, right, so you know where this goes — and for whatever reason, her youthful blood doesn’t seem to do much for Ziggy’s ever-increasing infirmed state. We end up discovering a long line of Miriam’s undead lovers, aged and encased in coffins is stowed away in the couple’s lovely New York City brownstone where Dr. Roberts soon arrives searching for John finding only Miriam who, in her own best interests of course, quickly seduces Dr. Roberts in one helluva steamy vampire love scene. The scene is so effectively caught up in the passion, you, as well as Dr. Roberts, hardly notice she’s been afflicted. And from there we get a troubled love triangle that any good vampire movie would be remiss without.

This film was released the year after Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” and the style is such that it almost seems like brother Tony was taking a cue from his elder. The murky pace, heavy shadows, Venetian blinds, and synthy score can’t all be by mistake in this directorial debut. If the film hadn’t been shot by Stephen Goldblatt, I would have easily guessed “Blade Runner’s” Jordan Cronenweth. Scott claims the look of the film was inspired by the work of American photographer Irving Penn. The blue-gray, inky black world Scott presents comes across like a level of aether, and is especially effective in the daytime scenes because it feels like what little light there is is too much. Sympathy for a vampire.

The film suggests some textbook vampire behavior at first but doesn’t tell you they’re vampires and you’re immediately hooked by curiosity. In fact, you’re not really sure you’ve got a case of the vampires until at least the end of the first act. Once you get over the absence of “I vant to suck your blood,” (because there isn’t anything so literal), you realize you’ve got a great heady vampire tale that, like any good Superman story, is more fascinating told in the frame of an internal struggle.

There’s a lot of space between the notes in this film, which is where they say the music is made, but I think it leaves almost a little too much to question, because by the end you’re not really sure how these unconventional vampire rules apply. What we’re not suffering from is lack of explanation, but a bit of a lack of clarity — a “hunger” if you will — however, if you’re a vampire pro, you’ll be fine with it. But really, why doesn’t the blood of Alice Cavender sate John’s hunger? Why doesn’t Miriam kill John when he asks? Did John not realize how things were going to go when he and Miriam loaded up the Penske truck with three or four other coffins before moving into this current lovely brownstone? We’re also asked to wonder if John and Miriam even existed to begin with which reads more ghost story than unholy damned. Maybe I’m getting too technical with my vampire mythology.

Fun things to note are a quick twofer by Willem Dafoe and John Pankow (see also, “To Live And Die In L.A.”) as two guys waiting to use the phone booth, and a couple of brief appearances from Dan Hedaya as Detective Allegrezza — Italian for cheerfulness, which ironically, he isn’t — who’s been searching for the missing and only cheerful thing in this film, Alice Cavender.

The monochromatic moodiness and sympathetic Bowie make this slightly flawed narrative a cult classic that should be required viewing only on very late nights. And that steamy vampire love scene doesn’t hurt either. Thoughtful, curious, and maybe too sparse, “The Hunger” is enough to keep you wanting more.

Three and a half stars.

(Streaming on Criterion Channel)

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