It’s not every day you get to see a film about an ancient Egyptian vampire whilst surrounded by genuine artefact's from the tombs of pharaohs. So when the Petrie Museum announced they were screening The Hunger, as part of their LGBT programme, this Anne Rice addict jumped at the chance. I hadn’t seen The Hunger since I was a vampire-crazed teen, obsessed with Lestat and the blood drinkers from Poppy Z. Brite’s novel Lost Souls. David Bowie was one of my first crushes, so Vampire Bowie was basically the pinnacle of hotness to fifteen year old me. Watching the opening scene, filmed in the Heaven club on Villiers Street, where Miriam and John Blaylock choose their nubile victims as Peter Murphy performs Bela Lugosi’s Dead, took me straight back to listening to Bauhaus in my childhood bedroom, a dog-eared copy of Dracula in my hand.
The Hunger was Tony Scott’s first major feature film, and his background in advertising and music videos is immediately apparent in the highly stylised opening minutes of the film. What struck me about the overall look of the movie, is that while it looked dated in the mid-Nineties, I don’t think the hairstyles and fashions wouldn’t look out of place in an East London music venue today. With fashion and music revisiting the Eighties, it might be an ideal time for this cult flick to find a new audience.
The story centres on centuries old vampire, Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve), and her husband, John (Bowie). While drinking human blood sustains the vampires’ unnatural long life, only Miriam appears to be truly immortal. The lovers she takes and turns into supernatural creatures have a limited shelf-life, as John finds out when he begins to age rapidly one day.
Desperate for longevity, he visits gerontologist, Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), an expert on sleep and its effect on lifespan, but she assumes he is a crank and leaves him in her waiting room while she attends meetings. After a few hours, John has become an old man. Betrayed by Roberts, he leaves in search of sustenance, but is too weak to kill a grown man. John returns home to find Alice, a young girl who visits the Blaylock's for music lessons. Although fond of her, John kills Alice and drinks her blood, but it’s not enough to reverse his rapid degradation. Realising Miriam has lied to him about having eternal youth, and that she cannot love him in his decrepit state, John tries to commit suicide, but Miriam tells him he cannot die, and incarcerates him in a coffin in her attic with all her previous lovers, all of whom are rotting but conscious. Alone once more, Miriam turns her attention to Sarah Roberts, who comes in search of John, seducing her and exchanging blood. But Roberts his horrified to discover she has become a monster and attempts to kill herself and Miriam, releasing her undead lovers at the same time.
There’s something far more distressing about watching this film as a woman approaching middle age than as a teenager! While The Hunger is a paranormal tale, the themes of ageing and falling out of love are universal and very human. There’s something so tragic and moving about Miriam cradling John in her arms, whispering his appalling fate to him while she takes him up to his final resting place. Shrunken and feeble, he has been returned to a childlike state, reliant on a woman for whom he was an object of sexual desire just one day previously. Although Miriam vows to love John forever and ever, she cannot love him once he becomes frail and ugly, but she cannot kill him either. The screaming bodies in the attic are Miriam’s penance for a life of selfish acts. Although she won’t live alone, companionship comes at a terrible price, and Deneuve’s cool, collected portrayal of the vampire is belied by the sequence in which she infiltrates Sarah’s dreams, and we see the doctor wake in tears.
The Hunger, released in 1983, pre-dates wide-spread awareness about HIV and AIDS, but the notions of vampires and disease are often associated with female sexuality and homosexuality in the Gothic tradition. The love scene between Miriam and Sarah, set to the strains of Delibes’ Flower Duet, looks tame today, but at the time would have been rather risqué. Perhaps influenced by the relationships between Lestat and his mother, and Louis and the child vampire, Claudia, in the works of Anne Rice (which Scott was interested in adapting for the screen), it’s John’s murder of young Alice which retains the ability to shock.
While roundly panned by critics, and a box office flop, The Hunger became a cult classic, and deservedly so. While the ending (rewritten at the studio’s request) is somewhat confusing, the performances and SFX really stand up. It’s also fun to see Susan Sarandon (Janet Weiss in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) paired with Cliff de Young, who had played the second incarnation of Brad Majors in the 1981 sequel, Shock Treatment. A pleasing mash-up of high art pretensions and pop culture, sensuality and the grotesque, The Hunger exposes some difficult truths about love, lust, and the transient nature of human life.
Follow Katie Young on Twitter as @Pinkwood
Photos courtesy of IMDB and Wikipedia