Bela Lugosi’s Dead: The Hunger and the New Vampire Movie

The Hunger poster

VHS Revival turns chic with Tony Scott’s stylish vampire thriller.

When one thinks of vampire films of the 1980s, the first example that comes to mind is probably The Lost Boys, the 1987 hit that fused the teen rebel movie with Gothic horror to spectacularly popular effect.

From there you might move on to Near Dark, released that same year, which was the darker, meaner, more poetic sibling to Joel Schumacher‘s pop-culture rush. Then there’s the delightful Fright Night, one of the best combinations of comedy horror ever made, and while we’re at it, let’s spare a thought for its fun but inferior sequel, Fright Night Part II, and wonder why it still isn’t available on Blu-ray or even DVD. Video store junkies will also have time for the gleeful, neon-drenched B-movie pleasures of Vamp or the underrated, satirical A Return to Salem’s Lot.

Miriam Blaylock: You’ll be back. You’ll be back. When the hunger hurts so much it knows no reason! Then you’ll need to feed. And then you need me to to show you how.

But before all of those films there was The Hunger, which was arguably the first major-studio, modern-day vampire movie of the decade, even if it wasn’t a big hit upon its release. In fact, it was critically lambasted in some quarters, ‘one of the most incoherent and foolish pictures of recent months’ said The Observer, while Roger Ebert regarded it as ‘agonisingly bad’. Cine-grump Leslie Halliwell called it ‘absurd’ and ‘an ordeal’. Even the reviewers who did like it lamented that story and logic had been sacrificed at the expense of style and atmosphere. True, it is flawed, but there is real greatness in The Hunger.

The Hunger 5

Adapted from Whitley Strieber’s 1981 novel, it tells the story of two beautiful, elegant vampires, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie). Miriam appears to be genuinely immortal, having lived for thousands of years, while John is relatively young at only a couple of centuries. However, John soon realises that the promise of ‘forever and ever’ turns out to have a horrific sting in the tail—yes, he will remain eternal, but his time as a ‘young man’ is rapidly coming to an end.

John begins to age at an astonishing rate, and looks set to live the rest of time as an ancient, imprisoned in a coffin alongside Miriam’s past lovers. Miriam meanwhile, finds a potential new companion in Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), whose own research into sleep patterns and their relation to the longevity of life promise to unlock the mysteries of death. Sarah herself is drawn to the Blaylock house, firstly because of guilt over her refusing to take a desperate and dying John’s concerns seriously, and then because of her attraction to Miriam. The two become lovers, sharing not only their bodies but their blood, and so begins Sarah’s rapid and escalating hunger…

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All signs for The Hunger looked promising. It was the debut feature of the brother of the director of Alien and Blade Runner, boasted state-of-the-art production credentials, some button-pushing sexual themes and a stylish soundtrack. The casting was also a notably sophisticated affair. Deneuve, although hardly a box office draw Stateside, was nonetheless a classy lead for a horror movie. She personified European glamour and beauty. Sarandon had already made a name for herself in films both cult (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and arthouse (Atlantic City). Then there was Bowie. His casting was a shrewd move—so uncannily convincing as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth that he was perfect for the role of that other mysterious creature, the vampire. Admittedly, by 1983 he looked far more healthy and human than he had in ages (mirrored in the mainstream sound of his Let’s Dance LP), but he was still Bowie, and he was still above and beyond the usual kind of pop star, still brilliantly strange.

On one level, The Hunger is shamefully commercial—an artier, more elegant kind of commercial, but commercial nonetheless. It’s one of the few films where the costume designer was credited in one of its taglines, pitching Milena Canonero’s contributions above the film’s title. It wasn’t just a movie, it was ‘a mood, a look, an ambience’. It was a feel, a lifestyle, all dazzling surfaces, peerless glamour and seductive danger. I’m surprised it wasn’t marketed with an official perfume or couture.

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John and Miriam are beautiful, untouchable people and at the time The Hunger was promoted as being the final word in elegant decadence. The trailer is a must-see. Hilariously narrated by Peter ‘Optimus Prime’ Cullen, it doesn’t hold back in promising you the ultimate experience, boasting of the ‘timeless beauty’ of Deneuve, the ‘cruel elegance’ of Bowie and the ‘open sensuality’ of Sarandon. It’s almost as hilarious as the ostentatious trailer for Bowie’s earlier The Man Who Fell to Earth, which proclaimed its main attraction as nothing less than a ‘phenomenon of our time’. The Hunger‘s trailer is played so straight it’s almost funny. It may also be the only film which proudly states that, among other things, it is ‘perverse’. Unfortunately, such bold claims didn’t convince the majority of critics.

Sarah Roberts: She’s that kind of a woman. She’s… European.

I must say that I too was underwhelmed by the film, which I think was more down to what wasn’t there than what was. Maybe I was frustrated that the bulk of the film didn’t live up to the breathtaking impact of its opening sequence, where Miriam and John stalk, seduce and slay an unwitting couple after picking them up at a nightclub. For an almost entirely dialogue-free seven minutes, Scott delivers a rush of pure, kinetic cinema—the synthesis of jagged, scary, yet beguiling music (courtesy of goth icons Bauhaus), the prowling, voyeuristic visuals and the thrilling editing has rarely been matched. We’re instantly hooked, as hopelessly seduced as the two clubbers, who have no idea what they’re in for as they invite the vampires back to their flash pad, only to be cut to ribbons, not with fangs, but with the miniature daggers concealed in John and Miriam’s necklaces. It’s a remarkable start to the film, one that the rest arguably doesn’t match in terms of sheer grab-you-by-the-throat-and-then-bite-it impact, and I guess my initial ambivalence towards the rest of the film was that I wanted a more conventional horror movie, in keeping with all the other vampire outings of the decade. I wanted the usual suspense, scares, etc. and wasn’t prepared for a slow-motion meditation on, among other things, ageing.

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To those more familiar with his later, more populist work, it may surprise some that this is a film by Tony Scott, who would soon become one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. His high-gloss, high-voltage brand of explosive entertainment (often in conjunction with mega producers like Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver) were crowd-pleasing, zeitgeist-tapping pop movies dressed up to the nines. However, The Hunger feels closer in execution to the earlier works of brother Ridley, with its preference for languorous pacing and beautiful visuals. It could have slotted in quite neatly with Ridley’s filmography between Blade Runner and Legend. Unfortunately, because The Hunger flopped, Tony went the other way, still maintaining a strong visual aesthetic, but honing his skills to appeal to, if one wanted to be cruel, the lowest common denominator. Hey, it worked for him in the end—Top Gun was so huge it became the most successful film of the year in the US. Tony never looked back and wouldn’t make anything like The Hunger ever again, which makes it a fascinating curio in his filmography. It’s also a curio in the realm of vampire movies.

For instance, almost all of the vampire films of the decade (excepting A Return to Salem’s Lot and arguably Near Dark) were those with a predominantly younger cast and target audience, whereas The Hunger was notably adult in its approach and its sensibility. There’s only one young character, and she’s killed pretty early on. It was made after one of the key teen vampire movies (George A. Romero‘s Martin—not a hit but now recognised as one of the best of the genre), but before the big studios became aware of the commercial appeal of matching bloodsuckers with adolescents, so it does its own thing without any expectations, preconceptions or rules. By 1983, the vampire movie had been through its fair share of ups and downs. The likes of Dracula, of bats, capes, fangs, garlic and crosses must have felt exceptionally old-hat. Yet the allure of the vampire itself is something that never died, and the concepts of immortality, lost souls and taboo sexuality were still rich themes to draw from. As such, The Hunger is very much a legitimate vampire movie, but also one that either dismisses or outright ignores the genre’s tropes. The first scene pretty much states its case immediately, with Bauhaus’ Peter Murphy declaring that ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’—in other words, bye-bye Dracula, welcome to the eighties.

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Here, vampires were recast as predatory, prowling nightclubbers, beautiful people who wouldn’t have been turned away from Studio 54. Instead of a desolate castle in Transylvania, Miriam and John occupy a flash multi-storey house in New York. There are still many of the things you’d expect to see in a vampire movie—blood drinking, eternal life, seductions, murder—but it’s all given a fresh identity so that audiences were less likely roll their eyes. There was also a soundtrack that remains interesting due to its blend of contemporary pop (as well as Bauhaus, there’s Iggy Pop’s ‘Funtime’, which features backing vocals by Bowie), abstract electronica (courtesy of Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini) and classical music, the two most famous examples here being Delibes’ Lakme and Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat. As with all the other, wonderfully utilised musical selections, these are more than just background material—they’re essential components of the film.

Here was a vampire movie that luxuriated in its surroundings, dispensed with plot as much as possible and existed in a dream-like state. It’s not completely without antecedent—Harry Kumel’s delectable 1971 Daughters of Darkness is a possible influence (especially Delphine Seyrig’s lead vampire)—but for the most part it’s a fresh take on the old themes. It also presented the story, for a good chunk of the running time, from the vampires’ point of view. Instead of being a mysterious, faraway threat, we now joined the killers on their haunts. We also saw the serious downside of being a vampire—the loneliness, the emptiness. It’s also unique in that the character of John is not a pure vampire in that he is not actually immortal—his lifespan is substantially increased, but like all of Miriam’s past loves, time catches up with him with a vengeance. In one of the film’s most celebrated scenes, he desperately seeks Sarah’s advice, who brushes him off, thinking him to be a ‘nut’. John waits in the hospital reception, only to age at an accelerated rate in the space of an hour (superb makeup from Dick Smith and Carl Fullerton). By the time Sarah sees him next, he’s aged an extra couple of decades. Along with the opening, it’s a fantastic, show-stopping moment, but the most famous scene in The Hunger, the one that got people talking, was its sex scene between Miriam and Sarah.

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Even now you’re surprised the film goes this far with this scene, not in terms of explicitness (it’s actually tastefully edited and elegant, more dreamily erotic than raunchy) but just because of the way it sneaks up on you. The Hunger hadn’t declared itself a film with any homoerotic undertones for the first half (Sarah’s drawn to Miriam, but that’s more down to her mysterious powers than anything, or at least that’s what I presumed) and then all of a sudden Miriam’s chosen her as her next partner, drawing on and unearthing Sarah’s buried desires. It’s a brilliant curveball. The thing is, I see Miriam as kind of pansexual, she’s above and beyond labels, and therefore I see this as a lesbian relationship from one side: Sarah’s. For Miriam a partner is a partner, transcending gender.

Miriam Blaylock: Human kind have one way. We have an other. Their end is final. Ours is not. In the earth, it rotted wood. In the eternal darkness, we will see and hear and feel.

At just over ninety minutes, The Hunger is curiously structured. The first half, which details John’s descent, is so involving and powerful that his departure is almost like the end of a film, after which we’re in uncharted territory, which is pretty thrilling to be honest. In the same way that Psycho‘s shower scene is a climax of sorts, The Hunger wrong-foots you by killing off a person who seems to be the main character. Plotwise, the second half is messier, but also more exciting, although it does offer too much in too little time, with Sarah’s seduction, addiction and supposed salvation (the latter, sadly, contradicted by a tacked-on ending enforced by the studio) whizzing by. Nevertheless, there are so many gorgeous shots, so much great music and a real, unnerving sense of darkness creeping in that I forgive it.

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Ultimately, The Hunger is a film that you feel, and the more I watch it, the more it gets under my skin. It’s the sort of work that creeps into your thoughts before sleep; it lingers and haunts. Yes, it’s sometimes silly, yes it can feel as though it is underwritten, but I found myself as addicted as Sarah by the film’s final act. The original novel, which is far more detailed and full of fascinating sub-plots and alternate developments, could benefit from a more faithful adaptation, but if such a thing did happen then it would also have Scott’s ‘surreal opera’ (his words) to contend with, which brought its own identity to the story and an atmosphere which is difficult to shake.

Jimi Fletcher

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