Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” (1983)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Out Of Competition)

As his breakout debut feature, 1983’s THE HUNGER finds Tony Scott establishing his personal style.  Being somewhat of a box-office disappointment upon its release, THE HUNGER has since achieved cult status for its incredibly unique and stylish depiction of vampires.  While it is very much a product of its time, the film manages to feel fresh and daring, especially when compared to the neutered vampires found in today’s cultural landscape.

Personally speaking, I hate the over-saturation of vampires in pop culture almost as much as I do zombies.  THE HUNGER, however, makes up for it by eschewing the cliched vampire tropes while cooking up entirely new ones.  Almost a decade before Ann Rice’s leather-clad goth vampires glam-ed it up on screen, Scott presents his vampires as androgynous, highbrow creatures of grace, elegance and taste.  There are no fangs to be found here– instead, they siphon the blood from their victims by making an incision with a tiny blade that they wear as necklaces.  They can go out in daylight, and can even appear in mirrors.  In a nod to traditional lore, they do sleep in coffins– but only as a final resting place, just like the rest of us.

THE HUNGER concerns an ageless vampire couple, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), and John (David Bowie), who haunt the hippest punk/goth clubs and drink their victims’ blood to stay young forever.  One day, however, John begins aging rapidly, and by nightfall he is a decrepit old man.  No amount of blood will restore his youth.  In his desperation, he reaches out to an anti-aging researcher, Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon).  As Sarah becomes more involved in her investigation of John, her young, nubile body is seen by Miriam as John’s successor.

The storyline could easily be pulpy genre fare, but Scott fashions a tone ripped straight out of the pages of Vogue.  The performances are compelling, especially Bowie, who is perfectly cast as a supernatural, androgynous vampire.  Deneuve works well as the seductive Miriam, and gradually reveals more depth and malice as her storyline progresses.  The most surprising performance was Sarandon, who fully embraces the lesbian overtones of her relationship with Miriam in order to become the agent of her demise.  She uses her natural intelligence effectively in her depiction of a curious researcher on the verge of a great discovery.  Scott’s older brother, Ridley, would use Sarandon to great effect almost a decade later in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), but Tony gets first crack at her and allows her to generate one of her most iconic performances.

Scott worked with Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt to establish a unique look for the film, and he would later incorporate many aspects of this look into his overall personal style.  In a striking contrast to his earlier, low-key work, Scott shoots on anamorphic 35mm film, thereby allowing the film stock’s deep contrast to create striking backlit silhouettes.  The picture is dark, very dark– most of the lighting comes from background sources like blown-out windows.  Scott uses the recurring motif of billowing curtains as an effective framing device, especially in the film’s climatic scene where the obscuring of certain figures in the frame becomes crucial.  In a bid to reflect the cold nature of his vampires, Scott gives the film a steely blue color palette– offset by the use of bold reds (like the blood or a woman’s lipstick) to punch through the gloom.

His camera-work is low-key for the most part, choosing to stay bound to a tripod and limited to zooms and pans.  However, he makes up for it in stylish, experimental editing (especially in the opening credits).

He also uses music effectively, creating a striking juxtaposition between classical music, original music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini, and punk songs.  For instance, the film opens with the Bauhaus track, “Bela Lugosi Is Dead”.  It’s the perfect choice to illustrate that these vampires are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  At the same time, Scott uses well-known classical music to score a majority of the film, as a reflection of the vampires’ elegance.  One particular moment that stands out is the use of classical music during a lesbian sex scene.  A lesser director would’ve embraced the grindhouse, exploitative nature of that story development, but Scott’s take elevates it to high art.

This was my first time seeing THE HUNGER, and I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would.  Scott’s mainstream debut is as solid as anything his older brother Ridley did during that time period, and sets the stage for a long, successful career.

THE HUNGER is available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.