Photo: MGM Entertainment Company / UA
Tony Scott’s Hunger, her 1983 adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s 1981 book of the same name, opens in the most perfect way a vampire movie could: Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock and her husband, John (David Bowie), set off in quest for snacks in a gothic nightclub, the Bauhaus is interpreting “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, everything shines bright blue and is covered in shadows. Miriam smokes a cigarette in a pillbox hat and cat-eye frames, John is in a tailored black shirt with a stand-up collar and lampshades. Strobe lights narrow in the reflections of their sunglasses. The couple spot a couple dancing together and all they have to do is say hello. Soon the woman’s leather jacket was opened to expose more of the neck and more of the collarbone; the collar of the men’s T-shirt has been cut to reveal the same. They look a little less refined and a lot more vulnerable. After slitting their victims’ throats with blades hidden in matching golden ankh pendants, John and Miriam drink them and immediately burn the remains in a basement incinerator. Eat clean.
Hunger was Tony Scott’s first feature film after 15 years doing commercials for his brother Ridley Scott’s production company. Critics decried her finesse, but never failed to note her incredible sense of style. Scott enlisted costume mistress Milena Canonero, from A clockwork orange and The brilliant, which imbued the Blaylocks with relentless composure. The word “vampire” is never mentioned once in the film; every little thing depends on knowing when you see it. Thus, the Blaylocks tick a multitude of boxes that one would expect immortals of a certain class: they have a huge Manhattan townhouse filled to the brim with antiques that were once contemporary to them, they give private lessons. of classical music, they spend their days “rather idle” in sewing from head to toe. (Deneuve was fitted by a friend and collaborator Yves Saint Laurent.) They wear what is beautiful and do what feels good, and once a week, in order to maintain their lifestyle and their lifespan, they wear feed on human blood. Everything seems obvious in the sense of the film’s supernatural and slightly conscious chic.
At the start of the film, John begins to discover that Miriam’s promise of eternal life is true, but that the guarantee of eternal youth is only valid for her. Seeing himself in a Polaroid, he notices new wrinkles, not in his crisp beige suit but on his face. In just one day, John turns 170 – thanks to the excellent special effects makeup done by Dick Smith, from The Exorcist and The Godfather – unwittingly doomed to the same fate as Miriam’s previous lovers: spirit intact and body in decomposition, locked in a coffin in the attic. In a last ditch effort to find something that looks like a cure, he pursues Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a researcher who studies rapid aging in chimpanzees.
Bowie does a lot with his limited screen time, and John’s decomposition is wonderfully grotesque. As his age catches up with him his movements become more awkward, anything that was once instinctive becomes torture work. He hesitates to pull his blade into the men’s bathroom. He tries to kill a skater in Central Park but only manages to cut him off. When he claims one final victim – one of the couple’s classical music students (and Miriam’s intended replacement) – he makes a big, sloppy mess of her. As his youth fades away, so does his power. And you can see it: The clean, strong lines of his impenetrable double-breasted jacket that he wore in his youth the night before, seem to crumple and crumble under the weight of his situation. He so quickly becomes a withered old man in a withered old suit, pathetically begging his 200-year-old partner for one last kiss.
Although Sarah initially dismissed John as an old crank, she takes him seriously after watching him age for decades in two hours. But it’s too late. After John is subjected to eternal commotion in the attic, Sarah shows herself guilty at the Blaylocks front door, where Miriam casts a glamor spell. The next time Sarah shows up on the doorstep, she’s not sure why she’s there, but Miriam invites her anyway. Sarah looks around and lingers in front of a sculpture. “It’s real, isn’t it?” She asks, to which Miriam replies, yes, he’s 2000 years old. “You have so many beautiful things,” Sarah continues, and Miriam’s response doesn’t warrant any question: “Most are from my family.” After going through centuries of trend cycles, it’s easy for someone to narrow down in frightening ways.
The two women are chatting over glasses of sherry. Miriam’s in a structured black dress with shoulder pads and a plunging neckline, hair sculpted into a perfect bun; Sarah wears a blazer and a plain white t-shirt. At one point, Sarah takes off the blazer. She seems a little overwhelmed, but not annoyed, by this beautiful woman and all her beautiful things, by the ankh pendant placed between her breasts. Miriam sits at the piano and plays the Flower Duo by Léo Delibes Lakme, a diffused bluish light crosses the transparent curtains and bounces off her jewelry. It gives her a cold, sparkling aura – everything about Miriam and her surroundings is a reflection of 2,000 years of practice, an opulence that can only be achieved with too much time.
When Sarah asks Miriam what she does in her spare time and Miriam replies, “My time is mine,” Sarah fantasizes out loud for a moment, “That’s great,” she says. “Lots of time for your friends, lots of lunches and dinners, cocktails at the Museum of Modern Art…” She loungs in an armchair behind the piano and listens. The sleeves of her t-shirt are rolled up, she is not wearing a bra, we can see the slightest glimpse of indescribable earrings and a smart watch. Her look is emblematic of the increasingly relaxed 80s, her fantasies are those of the proto-yuppie who is not yet quite there but definitely on the way.
Sarah asks if Miriam feels lonely now that her husband is away, then spills sherry on herself. Miriam helps Sarah take off her t-shirt and the two have sex, Miriam giving Sarah the curse-gift of eternal life in the process. At dinner that night with her boyfriend, Tom Haver (Cliff DeYoung), Sarah is fuzzy and shaky, barely able to look at him. She watches women swimming in the pool in the adjacent building. She orders a rare steak and can’t eat a single bite. And she wears her own ankh pendant. Tom is immediately suspicious: “You just met her and she gives you a present?” he asks, and Sarah is immediately on the defensive. “She’s that kind of woman. She is European.
At night, Sarah is restless, hungry, vomits all the time. Tom forces her to take a blood test, and they find two different strains of blood fighting for dominance in his veins. One is non-human and “stronger than ours,” and when Sarah asks who wins, there is no answer. An enraged Sarah rushes to Miriam’s apartment building, skin clammy and slightly delusional in a slightly puffed up trench coat. Miriam is honest about her “gift”, the fact that the second strain of blood is hers. “You belong to me. We belong to each other,” says Miriam, as she has done over and over for centuries. (There is an older interview with vampiric designer Rick Owens that I think about a lot, posted in DM Magazine in March 2002. He is asked about ‘the enduring appeal of vampires’ and replies,’ Well, we know it’s all about sex. Almost everything is. The idea of devouring, consuming, possessing someone that we desire. “)
Sarah runs away, but, experiencing a supernatural withdrawal, soon returns sweating through her clothes. Miriam then introduces him to the ranks of the immortal aristocracy, her baptismal drink coming from Tom when he shows up at the townhouse looking for her. Sarah has to get used to the role of Miriam’s lover. “Soon you will forget what you were,” said Miriam. As the two kiss, Sarah rejects Miriam’s “gift”, grabbing the ankh pendant and stabbing herself in the throat, her blood spurting into Miriam’s mouth. Miriam begins another dismal walk into the attic, but as she puts Sarah down, the wood creaks, doves fly, and the rest of her legion of undead lovers emerge from their coffins to confront her. She screams in horror as they descend on her in a flurry of rotten limbs and ragged fabrics, tulle veils and lacy skirts crumbling as they grab her.
Fashion loves vampires and vampires love fashion. Like that of Harry Kümel Daughters of Darkness and that of Jean Rollin Fascination before that, Hunger portrays both a designer’s ideal subjects and his ideal clients: eternal beings of inhuman beauty who possess endless time and money. (Alexander McQueen’s Spring / Summer 1996 collection, best known for her see-through bodice filled with live worms, was named after her.) Hunger stands out for the immediate seduction of its modern vampires – the look and feel of the film directly influenced the aesthetic of Propaganda, The founding gothic fanzine of Fred H. Berger. It’s fun to imagine how these supernatural elites adapt to each era; if your body remains eternally young and your mind contains an infinite number of referents, the distinction between contemporary and retro and vintage and even antique ceases to matter when you are supported by an endless supply of new blood.