Like its vampire protagonists, The Hunger is very strange beast, and it leaves me with two approaches to discussing it.
I could slip back to film school and spend hours discussing the endless thematic elements and stylistic flourishes on display. Or I could rip it a new one for being so utterly, hopelessly ridiculous.
Let’s do a bit of both shall we?
It’s always refreshing to see a new take on the vampire genre and The Hunger’s bloodsuckers are unlike any others. They wander around in daylight, they don’t have fangs, and their existence is eventually explained (via the medium of cod-science, naturally) as the result of an invasive strain of blood that transforms its human hosts. The interesting thing however, is that this isn’t a movie about vampires at all. It’s about style.
Let’s begin with the casting. I doubt there’s much left to say about Bowie that hasn’t been said better elsewhere already, but that isn’t about to stop me from trying. Oddly enough, he’s at his most human here. Wandering around in his trademark 80s light suits and fedoras, but it’s clear there’s still a passionate interest in transformation lurking below the surface (a surface that becomes deeper throughout the film, as he becomes increasingly covered in prosthetics).
This may not be his most involved or impressive feat of acting, but that odd sense of being apart that served him so well in The Man Who Fell To Earth makes him a perfect choice here. Although he’s a killer, the film posits that he’s doing it all for love, which makes his eventual desperate murder of a child all the more interesting.
Likewise Sarandon, who’s sharp features allow director Tony Scott to run wild with the lighting and makeup, making her an excellent foil to Catherine Deneuve’s more voluptuous but emotionally icy vampire progenitor. It’s clear that Scott went out of his way to find some damn interesting looking people for this (Keep an eye out for a young Willem Dafoe in the background too).
Ah yes… Tony Scott. It’s easy to mock his filmmaking. The over-cranked cameras. The constant silhouettes. The Insistence on cramming billowing curtains into every bloody scene. As his career went on, these visual tics would often become jarring, taking you out of the story and into technical film college. It’s impressive then that in The Hunger, he allows them free range, and they paper over an extremely thin plot (age-old vampire takes a series of lovers) with panache.
The visual design here is dated, but incredible. Everything is deep shadows and diagonal lines,. it’s clear the director was taking very detailed notes from brother Ridley’s Blade Runner (released one year earlier), and the insistence on high cheekbones and massive eyeliner hasn’t done that film any harm, so perhaps it’s unfair to moan about them here.
It’s hard not to give the film a hard time. It’s central idea that despite all of the style and sophistication of the modern world, we are one step away from bloody madness is hackneyed and buried under a stack of sub-themes, some worthy of consideration, others… not so much.
Vampirism as addiction has been done to undeath, but there’s some interesting things going on with the soundtrack, not least the move from clanking sub-industrial synths that bellow out when Bowie is in his glory, to the soothing classical that adds enough artsiness to the sex scenes to make you feel less pervy while checking out a topless Sarandon.
Overall, The Hunger is an odd movie. Several times it tries to be a more urbane, ‘grown-up’ vampire film, but it keeps tripping over horror cliches along the way. The scientists act like a bunch of dimwits, police officers are bumbling fools who don’t think a woman laughing at the mention of a child’s disappearance is unusual, and this is a movie where at least two vampires meet their ultimate demise by falling down a short flight of stairs. It’s hard to imagine Christopher Lee suffering the same indignity.
That said, it’s an interesting, stylish flick where influences from Giallo abound. Blood runs a bright, bright red against the otherwise deep blue palette, symbolic flashbacks fill in just enough background without interrupting the flow (although Bowie is the least convincing stableboy in history, and you can practically see the sellotape holding Deneuve’s Egyptian getup together), and yes, curtains have never billowed with such intent.
Nonetheless it makes a fascinating counterpoint to other grittier 80s vampire flicks like Near Dark, and sits on an interesting precipice between the tail-end of Hammer’s domination of the genre and the increasingly teen-friendly takes that were to come.
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.