Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 19, 2015)
David Bowie maintained a pretty low profile for the first few years of the Eighties, but he re-emerged with a vengeance in 1983. Not only did he put out Let’s Dance - possibly his most popular album ever - but also he mounted a hugely successful concert tour and starred in two movies. Only Bowie diehards remember Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, but The Hunger remains well-known by plenty of folks without an intense interest in the singer.
The Hunger focuses on three main characters. Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) researches longevity and regards age as a disease that can be possibly be cured. John (Bowie) and Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) are vampires who maintain a solitary lifestyle and emerge mainly to “feed”, though they also tutor teenage Alice Cavendar (Beth Ehlers) on the violin.
Miriam is the one who brought John to the undead lifestyle, and she transformed him back in the 18th century. Apparently he gets a more finite lifetime than she, as he starts to age rapidly. John tries to consult with Sarah about ways to halt this process, but she brushes him off as a nut. Sarah rethinks this prejudice when she sees him a couple of hours later and notices that he aged decades in that span.
John tries to prolong his life with a feeding but this doesn’t help. He soon passes, which leaves Miriam in need of a new “soul mate”. When Sarah stops by to ask about John, Miriam develops an interest in the doctor, who she chooses to be her new partner. The rest of the movie follows these developments.
Many criticized director Tony Scott for his emphasis on style over substance, and in flicks like Man on Fire, this causes significant narrative problems. However, for Hunger, these choices work. The film suffers from a very thin plot, so Scott’s decision to give the tale a slick visual style makes it significantly more compelling than it might have been.
Granted, this leaves us with slow pacing and a few too many “music video” moments. The flick starts with an almost campy look at a Bauhaus lip-synch performance of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, and that clearly sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Some of the choices seem a bit over the top, but at least Scott establishes a distinctive tone for the movie and gives it a visual presentation that matches the erotic vampire theme.
While the tale does seem to move pretty slowly, this makes sense given the characters. After all, time is usually so meaningless for the undead that the way the flick idles conveys that concept well. Even when time becomes precious to John, he can’t quite break out of established patterns, and the movie continues that sense of time as infinite.
The film’s unhurried pacing makes the occasional scenes of violent more effective. The action doesn’t become rushed or frenetic, but it brings things to life nicely. These scenes remain slick within the movie’s tone, and this conveys the brutality even more strongly. Don’t expect graphic violence, but the bloodshed stands out due to the elegance of the rest of the flick.
Maybe it’s my Bowie bias that makes me feel this way, but I think the flick peters out somewhat after John leaves the film. The flick’s mild energy dissipates at that time and it turns into more of a lesbian fantasy. That might be enough for many people, as the love scene between Deneuve and Sarandon remains famous. I think the movie’s last act lacks much spark, though, and it concludes in a somewhat nonsensical manner.
One odd choice comes from the introduction of Lt. Allegrezza (Dan Hedaya), the cop who investigates the disappearance of Alice. He pops up in the middle of the movie and reappears once toward the end. That’s it; Allegrezza is a minor plot distraction who serves no purpose in this tale. Perhaps he’s more prominent in the source novel, but here he does nothing and goes nowhere.
Those who look toward The Hunger as a horror film will leave disappointed. It’s really more of a gothic sex fantasy than a traditional vampire flick, and it doesn’t even bother with many of the usual genre conventions; the movie never refers to the characters as vampires, and they seem to suffer no ill effects from exposure to daylight. Despite slow pacing and a thin story, the film’s visual style works well for it and carries the day to make The Hunger a pretty intriguing piece.
Young actor footnote: keep an eye out for a very quick shot of Willem Dafoe as “2nd Phone Booth Youth”!