Monday, 25 February 2019

Recent Horror Viewing # 1:
The Hunger
(Tony Scott, 1983)

For no particular reason, I began 2019 by revisiting two arty, New York-set vampire films, both of which faced accusations of insufferable pretention upon their initial release.

Abel Ferrara’s ‘The Addiction’ (1995) was staple viewing for me back in my student days, on recorded-off-TV VHS, and, returning to it for the first time in nearly two decades, it certainly still has its moments (on a purely visual level, it’s great). As much as I generally love Ferrara’s work though, I confess that I now found the film’s sophomoric philosophical musings and confused religious / literary symbolism to be, well… insufferably pretentious, to be honest.

Tony Scott’s ‘The Hunger’, on the other hand, I recall watching on TV way back when and dismissing as insufferably pretentious. I’ve not really given it much thought since to be honest, but, returning to it last month with my critical faculties properly engaged, it actually impressed me a great deal.

True, Scott’s self-conscious, commercial / music video inspired directorial style is so overbearing that at times it obscures comprehension of the linear narrative (a cardinal sin in American cinema, then as now), but whilst it’s probably fair to label the film “style over content”, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any content. On the contrary, ‘The Hunger’s clipped, ecumenical narrative – extracted by screenwriters Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas from its unlikely origins in a novel by future UFO abduction kingpin Whitley Strieber - delivers a singularly affecting variation on the usual vampire mythos.

Presenting a considerably more mature and downbeat take on the subject than horror movies generally dare to hit us with, ‘The Hunger’ largely bypasses the familiar analogues of drug addiction, sexual desire and class conflict, instead using the prism of vampirism to explore issues of aging, mortality and marital fidelity. So, not exactly an easy sell for the youth-orientated horror market, any more than it was for my young self when I watched it on TV all those years ago.

As the film progresses, we gather that Catherine Deneuve’s character – currently named ‘Miriam Blaylock’ – has been walking the earth as an immortal since the time of the Pharaohs. Through flashback, we learn that her husband John (David Bowie) has been sharing her vampiric life with her since some point in the 18th century. Now however, John is dying – his body is suddenly aging at an accelerating rate, adding years, then decades, to his appearance each day.

We are never offered any explanation as to why this is happening - just as we are so often denied an explanation when our loved ones suddenly leave us in real life - but we know that it is not the first time it has happened. Like some gothic mad scientist, Miriam keeps a darkened room in the attic of her Manhattan mansion house, full of dusty old coffins containing the remnants of her former lovers. They are not dead though, to be clear – their spirits, being technically immortal, live on, feeling their mortal bodies decay alongside the wood that surrounds them, and hearing Miriam muttering about how much she still loves them, when she occasionally deigns to visit.

Because, that’s the most terrible thing of all, really. Miriam isn’t some femme fatale or heartless monster, seducing men and women for the sake of her own pleasure and callously abandoning them to this fate-worse-than-death. Seemingly afflicted with an almost childlike need to share her life with someone (and, no doubt, a terrible fear of loneliness), she falls for each of her partners with the earnest devotion of a first love, promising them a life of eternal happiness together. As she tells John, each time, she hopes that this aging thing won’t happen, or that she’ll at least be allowed a little bit longer than last time before it takes hold – but, sooner or later, they always succumb.

I mean… my god. In a sense, it’s just as well Scott goes so completely overboard with the film’s visuals, simply because they help to distract from the fact that this is just about the most comprehensively depressing story I’ve ever seen played out in the realm of fantastic cinema.

If you were feeling generous, you could perhaps argue that the director’s oneiric palette of diffuse blue and golden lighting, drifting smoke and billowing curtains (yes, there are pigeons), together with the film’s languorous, narcotic pacing and jagged, dissociative editing patterns, all serve to reflect the heightened sensory perceptions experienced by the vampire characters.

A stretch perhaps, but, whichever way you choose to look at it, Scott’s approach certainly succeeds in lending ‘The Hunger’ a “European feel”, in keeping with the personas of its French and British stars, allowing it to veer closer to the ‘bande dessinée’ aesthetic embraced by French cinema in the 1980s or, slightly closer to home, the narcoleptic fever dreams of Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ or Jess Franco’s Doriana Gray, than to anything one might reasonably have expected of a 1983 American studio movie.

The film’s notoriously disorientating opening sequence – in which footage of Bauhaus performing ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ on a fenced off nightclub stage is aggressively intercut with shrieking, test lab monkeys and a bloodily erotic vampire feeding frenzy – is an example of strobe-blasted New Wave psychedelia as uncompromising as anything found in Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky, setting the tone for a movie in which it feels as if functional exposition has been ditched at every turn in favour of diversions into shamelessly indulgent audio-visual reverie.

I mean, I’m not really sure why we later need to see Bowie’s character descend to some kind of cavernous subterranean ballroom to attack and then pointedly not drink the blood of some guy who appears to be developing an interpretive rollerskating routine to the accompaniment of Iggy Pop’s exquisitely sinister ‘Fun Time’ (Bowie’s suggestion for the soundtrack, no doubt), but, all is forgiven when we notice that the Ankh-shaped dagger slashes the victim’s throat at the exact moment Iggy drawls, “last night I was down in the lab / with Dracula and his crew”. (For a film that famously never deigns to use the word ‘vampire’, ‘The Hunger’ certainly makes up for it with the winks and nods in its musical selections.)(1)

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I like the way that the film begins to establish a musical counterpoint each of the different time periods within which the characters originate. Whilst the frantic art-rock of Bauhaus and Iggy becomes associated with contemporary New York and the grim scientific enquiry of Susan Sarandon’s sleep deprivation experiments, the Blaylock’s home life is soundtracked by the austere classical music (a Schubert piano trio) that they play alongside their teenage neighbour. Providing some of the film’s calmest and most beautiful moments, these musical recitals must represent the good ol’ days for Bowie’s 200-year-old European gentleman.

(It’s a shame I think that the film fails to complete the full circle in this regard, as I would have loved to have heard Deneuve bust out with some long, lost refrain from the ancient banks of the Nile or something – perhaps during her tryst with Sarandon in the final act?)

Beyond all of ‘The Hunger’s elegiac, urban gothic grandeur though, what really makes it work for me I think is the basic, unavoidable humanity of its characters. Though John and Miriam may play the part of lofty, aesthete immortals (a necessary coping mechanism perhaps when one needs to regularly feast upon human blood), when the chips are down, they are just as hopeless and confused as the rest of us.

The sequence of events that leads them to cross paths with Sarandon’s character – seeing a doctor with some crazy ideas interviewed on TV, buying her book and badgering her for an appointment at her clinic – mirrors a pattern of desperation familiar to any number of couples trying to find a magical escape from a terminal diagnosis, as, in a sense, does Miriam’s pathological need to immediately find a new partner to ease her loneliness, forcing herself to forget the awful fate she will eventually end up consigning them to.

True, few of us keep our decaying former partners locked in coffins in the attic, or drink our neighbours’ blood in an effort to regain our youth, but the emotional trajectories being played out within this hyper-stylised world feel painfully authentic.

It’s curious to reflect that, had the late Tony Scott left the film industry immediately after directing ‘The Hunger’, he might be remembered today as some daring, wildcard auteur, rather than, well… let’s just summon the image of a grinning Tom Cruise striding towards us in a bomber jacket whilst Kenny Loggins plays and leave it at that, shall we? [Shudder.]

In fact, with thirty plus years hindsight, ‘The Hunger’ stands out as one of those totally inexplicable one-offs that causes film fans to stop and wonder where the hell it’s evident artistry originated from. I mean, you’ve got a notoriously tasteless director, a trashy doorstop horror source novel, a not-insubstantial Hollywood budget and a studio demanding results. I don’t want to sound like too much of a snob here, but the question needs to be asked: what went right?

(1) Going totally off-topic for a while, I’ve always been fascinated by that particular lyric in ‘Fun Time’. It’s just such a weird non-sequitur. Was Iggy making a coded reference to some druggy associates of his in Berlin’s underground scene, or was he just responding to the track’s sinister vibe by dredging up some garbled references to Universal horror movies? Who knows…


Unknown said...

Thanks for the interesting review Ben. I admit I haven’t seen The Hunger but it’s on my to-watch list. The Tithonus element does sound an intriguing lens for the vampire myth- especially one with such a pop culture slant as well. Perhaps it was a prescient take on the paradox that youth rebel pop culture ultimately created a society with an ageing population. And the painful straining I felt in Gen X and boomer culture to adopt yooful disdain and cheap world weariness when consumerism can never grant the physical beauty and strength of youth which is uh pretty much all youth has to offer IMHO. I guess along with a brief span of fertility in the case of women but that is one political minefield that I don’t fancy venturing into today- though it does tie in with the reality of ageing theme (and the fact even speaking about things like this would be social death in most horror fan circles is perhaps why outsiders often make more interesting horror films).

Curiously enough, on the note of ‘unexpectedly interesting vampire movies by people who haven’t had many other notable triumphs in horror’ (or anywhere else that I know of in this case) I watched Vampire Circus recently for the first time since catching it as a teenager in a mass Hammerthon in the mid 90s. I thought it had some flashes of surprising brilliance and have heard tell of some learn-ed men discerning the influence of Bergman, Cocteau and Fellini on the director (seriously). I honestly don’t feel qualified to say but the eerily beautiful evil twins luring the goody couple into a hall of mirrors had a near Borgesian sense of the uncanny, especially given the more than passing physical resemblance of the youthful lovers and the brother/sister vampires.

Having said that I doubt VC has much of a following in any Borges/ Bergman fan base. Judging from google’s autocomplete, its biggest claim to fame seems to be the ‘tiger woman’ dance scene in which a bald green lady cavorts naked. I mean call me fussy or whatever but that was hardly my highlight, though I suppose that at the same time I can’t deny that VC certainly does deliver in terms of campy 70s schlock. Oddly it also features a still shockingly kinky scene with a striking blonde beauty being strapped on the derrière by grieving parents, though evidently bald green tiger lady was more popular.

Anyway, sorry if this turned into yet another irrelevant ramble, just thought that the recommend might be worth mentioning- whether it has a germ of arthouse fantasy trying to get out of a 70s Kensington gore fest or simply plain bonkers, it’s certainly not boring- and it’s got Darth Vader as an organ grinder if nothing else!

Unknown said...

PS- I just left an anonymous comment from my new account but this is 'Gregor' of old, bit of a long story of a lost password

Ben said...

Thanks for taking the time to compose such an interesting comment Gregor - I enjoyed reading it.

I've not seen 'Vampire Circus' for years, but yes, I remember it being really good. Definitely on my own list to re-watch -- I've been patiently waiting for an affordably priced blu-ray to pop up, but might have to give in and watch the old DVD...