Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THE HUNGER: A Tribute to David Bowie

Tony Scott, 1983
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon

John and Miriam Blaylock are vampires living out their days in a New York mansion. They feed upon attractive young couples and Miriam — considerably older than her partner — promises him they will be together forever. But John soon learns this is a lie and, after more than two centuries as a vampire, abruptly begins to age, something Miriam admits has happened to all her previous lovers. Determined to survive, John reaches out to Dr. Sarah Roberts, a local gerontologist gaining ground in age research with some promising experiments. She doesn’t believe him, but after he dies, she finds herself drawn to Miriam and in the beginnings of a relationship that could prove fatal.

Though I hadn’t planned to review The Hunger as part of my British horror series, it seems like the thing to do in light of the sudden, heartbreaking death of David Bowie late Sunday night. I don’t really have the words to say what he meant to me, though judging from the almost violent outpouring of grief, support, and celebration all over the internet, I’m certainly not alone and I’m grateful that he was loved for so long and so passionately. I’m not generally a very emotional person, but I cried more yesterday than I have since my grandfather passed away a year and a half ago. And maybe I’m feeling Bowie’s loss so profoundly as a sort of compound effect: my grandfather’s death in July of 2014 has been followed by the deaths of several men who count as heroes, patron saints, and imaginary father figures: Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Lee earlier in 2015, and Lemmy two weeks ago. Though all of these men lived full, amazing lives, it’s been hard to say goodbye.

While I generally have an irrational affection for films and music released in 1983 — the year of my birth — I never really formed an attachment to The Hunger, which, before today, I only saw once about 15 years ago. But my opinion of the film has almost completely changed after revisiting it and, in many ways, its themes tie together perfectly with a tribute to its star. It’s the only horror film from director Tony Scott, though it has strange parallels with his brother Ridley’s masterpiece from the previous year, Blade Runner (1982). Like that film, The Hunger’s color scheme is primarily blue, black, and white with imagery of floating curtains, rain, running water, errant tears, incessant cigarette smoking, and doves in flight. 

More importantly, it shares Blade Runner’s anxieties about mortality, aging, and death. This is a film about vampires, so that theme is a bit obvious, but I think it has more in common with Blade Runner — and several other ‘80s horror films — than it does with popular vampire films from the period, such as Salem’s Lot (1979), Fright Night (1985), Near Dark (1987), or The Lost Boys (1987). In essence, The Hunger exists at the intersection of more commercial fare like fashion photography and music videos, gory ‘70s cult horror — particularly lesbian vampire films like The Vampire Lovers or Vampyros Lesbos — and the mainstream, adult-themed horror of the ‘80s, such as The Fly (1986) or the Cat People (1982) remake, for which Bowie contributed the theme song.

Like The Fly and Cat People, The Hunger places mortality within the context of identity, transformation, monstrosity, and even science fiction. More than many of the other vampire films from early in the decade, it connects vampirism with drug addiction, homosexuality, and diseased blood, in other words, the emerging AIDS epidemic. Though Sarah is studying the human aging mechanism, she does so with through experiments with panicked monkeys, extensive blood testing, and the harsh white of hospital labs. 

And like Cat People, The Fly, and Werner Herzog’s earlier Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and somewhat later films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview with a Vampire (1994), The Hunger’s obsession with aging and death is countered by an equal emphasis on adult themes like love, sex, and possession. Like many of those, a tragic romantic relationship lies at the film’s center, though in this case it marks the trajectory between old, rejected lover and desired new conquest. The film doesn’t just ask why we have to age and die, but why commitments fade and are broken. John’s anxieties about aging are paralleled with fears of being rejected and replaced.

In putting the emphasis on these themes, The Hunger also overturns much established vampire mythology. John and Miriam appear in mirrors, pictures, and daylight. They need to get a certain amount of sleep each night and there is a clear, if unexplored connection between John’s disintegration and his sudden insomnia. When Miriam turns Sarah, she tells her that she must get six hours of sleep out of every 24. And when a vampire dies — as in John’s case — even that death is not absolute. Disturbingly, Miriam keeps coffins full of her dead lovers, suspended forever in extreme old age — (SPOILERS) though these mummy-like figures eventually rise up and kill Miriam before disintegrating, freeing themselves from an eternity of lovesick torment. This beautiful finale is marred by an additional ending tacked on by the studio, where Sarah is alive and well — despite the fact that she killed herself and poisoned Miriam — preparing to seduce a young couple as Miriam screams her name offscreen, presumably from a coffin in the attic.

While the elegant, stately Deneuve is perfectly cast as Miriam and a post-Rocky Horror, pre-Witches of Eastwick Susan Sarandon is capable if a bit ungainly as Sarah, this film absolutely belongs to David Bowie — as do most things with his involvement. Though he is only in the first half, his physical beauty provides an effective contrast to John’s sudden, grotesque aging and his grief is somewhat restrained, but palpable. Interestingly, this is Bowie in his mid-thirties — arguably just beginning to age — on the verge of major commercial success: the previous year saw his collaboration with Queen, while the album “Let’s Dance” was released just after The Hunger. It would reach platinum in two continents and rocketed him to international stardom.

I also can’t help but wonder (and perhaps the Blu-ray special features answer this question) if he was responsible for some of the film’s more countercultural elements. In particular, the film’s amazing opening sequence where Bauhaus — who loved Bowie and do a ripping cover of “Ziggy Stardust”perform “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in a goth club. A later scene shows a teenage skateboarder dancing to Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” written by Bowie and Pop for their album, “The Idiot.”

Bowie’s actual death was of course the complete opposite of the events in The Hunger. He kept his cancer secret for the better part of two years and, instead of making a public announcement about his illness and impending death, he gave fans one last album, “Black Star,” which is a surprising work of genius packed with themes of death, rebirth, and resurrection. Classy to the last, some of the final images of him are filled with joy. We should all hope to have such an end.

I’m honestly still having a rough time with it, but the best thing to do is celebrate the man and his work. Though The Hunger has its share of flaws and was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release, it still comes recommended for a shattering, if not quite The Man Who Fell to Earth-level performance from one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ best and brightest. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote that I always associate with David Bowie — “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” — but today there’s another that seems apt.

“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”

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