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Deep Cuts: The Hunger

Contributed by
Jun 29, 2018

The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're examining Tony Scott's '80s lesbian vampire movie The Hunger.

A film studies professor once told me that, when it comes to cinematic depictions of vampires, every generation got the vampire they needed. The durability of the vampirism metaphor means that it can be molded to fit any theme or ideas about the world a creator has. For Bram Stoker’s era, Dracula became British society’s fear of the foreign unknown made flesh. During times of financial uncertainty and the emergence of millennial angst, who could blame people for finding solace in the indestructible sparkles of Twilight, where money, aging, and death were inconsequential because you could be pretty and live forever? The 1980s had a different set of fears: Reaganism was reaching its peak, greed was good, and AIDS had become the all-consuming epidemic that the most powerful people in the world tried to actively ignore.

Other vampire films of the era and its aftermath took on the AIDS crisis in interesting ways — Abel Ferrara's The Addiction reimagines vampirism as an allegory for drug addiction — but none of them had the potency or stylistic approach of Tony Scott’s 1983 horror-drama, The Hunger. Starring Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and the legendary David Bowie, the adaptation of Whitley Strieber's novel is something of a cult classic now, but its unique approach to a well-trodden genre is worthy of a deeper look.

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The Hunger opens with Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve) and her companion John (Bowie) attending a club where Bauhaus are performing "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (just in case you need a hint as to how this film approaches the classic horror genre tropes). Miriam, thousands of years old, has been with her companion since the 18th century. The pair are impossibly glamorous and can attract anyone with a mere glance. They bring guests back home to feast, stabbing them in the neck with a small knife and feasting.

Afterward, they dispose of the corpses and return to their lives as upper-class New Yorkers, wealthy and envied and able to spend their days in leisure and music. Vampirism in its modern and most accepted incarnation has always been tied to ideas of wealth. For many, the word “vampire” instantly elicits images of well-dressed aristocrats in extravagant castles who mingle only with the best of society. In The Hunger, that idea is given the '80s sheen — big shoulder pads, impossibly elegant townhouses with minimalist interiors, and complete freedom to have anything you want. People fall at Miriam and John’s feet not just because they’re exceptionally attractive — although believe us, they totally are — but because they exude power and privilege. Getting everything comes naturally to them.

The dream quickly begins to unravel, as John develops insomnia, then starts to age dramatically. In the space of a few days, the previous 200 years or so catch up with him. Miriam’s promise of eternal life was true, but she forgot to mention that the eternal youth would be temporary. These are the most affecting scenes in the film. It’s been over two years since we lost David Bowie — and it still stings — and to see his character wither into an aged figure over such a short period of time is genuinely tough to stomach. Indeed, John ages more than Bowie himself seemed to, which makes it all the harder to endure as a viewer. At the time of the film’s release, the news was full of stories of the increasing AIDS epidemic, often accompanied by photographs of sufferers whose appearances had drastically changed in mere months. It’s tough to ignore those parallels when watching The Hunger: A beautiful, seemingly healthy libertine turns to a husk of a man before he even understands what’s happening.

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John seeks out gerontologist, Dr. Sarah Roberts (Sarandon), who specializes in aging and sleep. Her experiments involve rapidly aging monkeys, which she watches with a cool distance and cigarette in hand. She's a career woman who has little investment in her own love life and, like Miriam, is always in control. John comes to her for help, but she writes him off as a doddering old man and ignores him. When she sees for herself how quickly he aged in mere hours, it's too late for her to help. Now at a level of distressing decrepitude, John asks Miriam to kill him and end his misery, but she tells him there is no end to this. As a final act of love, she carries him to the attic and places him in a coffin, where he will spend the rest of time moaning for escape alongside Miriam's other ex-lovers who suffered the same fate. For a film so achingly cool and detached at times, this scene of twisted adoration is one of its most chilling moments.

Miriam, who fears loneliness more than anything else, sets her sights on Sarah to be her new companion. The attraction is undeniable, and the seduction is quick. Soon, the pair are having very passionate sex amidst endless flowing curtains, all to the soprano duet from Lakmé. Overwrought? Completely. Male gaze-y as all hell? Yeah, basically. Sexy? Of course! It may be the most '80s thing about a film chock-full of the decade’s iconography. At a time where homophobia was not only rampant but tied in the public’s eyes to a terrifying disease, to see a film just go for it with two women having the best sex ever is refreshing and kind of radical. Like a lot of '80s cheese, it walks this fine line between being hot and empowering but also kind of insulting; very much a case of two steps forward, one step back.

Miriam herself is a tough character to sympathize with. She’s powerful and hypnotically alluring, but she’s also a master manipulator who’s put countless people through hell without ever warning them of their inevitable fates. It’s arguable whether she feels genuine remorse for what she does — over and over again — because she’s committed to repeating the same mistakes for eternity. Before John has even, for lack of a better term, died, she’s grooming an unwitting teenage girl to be his replacement. When she is killed, she immediately decides that Sarah will be her new companion, but obviously never asks her for her input. Miriam is the ultimate bisexual seductress, so commonly found in horror and erotic cinema of the era. Usually, bisexuality in such stories is coded as bad — another sign of the villain’s deviance or unnatural inclinations — but here it doesn’t have that implication. She isn’t bad because she’s bisexual, she’s bad because destroys lives and just happens to enjoy the company of both men and women. It’s a key difference, one many films don’t even bother with, but when you’re looking for solid bisexual representation in pop culture, these things matter.

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During their love-making, Miriam feeds Sarah some of her blood, and soon she begins to transform herself. Here, vampirism is directly depicted as an infection, an invasion of the body that has no known cure. For a doctor like Sarah, this is the cruelest fate and one that would have felt all too relevant upon the film's release. Driven mad by hunger, Sarah kills her boyfriend, then falls into Miriam's arms in a daze. It seems that she is ready to accept the inevitable until she stabs herself and forces Miriam to ingest her blood. This transfer of bodily fluids seems to do the trick — it's one of the movie's more muddled moments and is never really explained — and Miriam falls to her death, suffering the aging fate her lovers went through as they watch on, having emerged from their coffins like mummies to see her turn to dust. They too are free from the agony once she passes.

The ending is where the film falls apart. The final scene of Sarah, living an eternal life with Miriam now in the coffin, was added at the behest of the studio in case the film was successful enough to warrant a sequel. It really doesn't make much sense, something Susan Sarandon has talked about openly for years following its release. We've just seen both women die and now they've switched to this? It also defangs the central question Sarah faces: Would you want extended life if it meant living essentially as an addict? Sarah refuses this and accepts death, and that's what makes the moment so powerful. Tacking on a U-turn like the film does spoils that, and also rejects the rules it spent the previous 90 minutes establishing. When your film is mostly about mood and tension, it doesn’t serve the story well to ignore that subtle world-building in favor of a sequel-hook climax.

Nowadays, The Hunger is a strange beast that feels simultaneously like a relic and a story ahead of its time. It's undeniably '80s, both in its style and theme, but it's also the kind of post-modern take on the vampire story that would come to dominate the genre in the 2000s. There are no fangs, no capes, and the sun doesn't turn anyone to dust. Here, vampires are predators of class and taste, but no less ruthless for it in the long run. The fear of infection and bodily degradation is a dishearteningly timeless one, so while the prescience of the AIDS epidemic parallels isn’t currently in the forefront of our minds, the power of The Hunger remains. It may not be held in great regard by many critics, but The Hunger is still a film that demands your attention, particularly if you like vampires, erotic horror, or David Bowie. And really, don't we all?