Classics Revisited: “The Hunger”

Reviewer’s note: upon the heartbreaking loss of David Bowie, I’m revisiting not so much the movie, but a review of it I wrote on my former personal blog some years ago, in which I may have been a little too hard on it. This starts off as the original review (with some minor edits for length and grammar self-policing), with some new content to follow.

According to the IMDB, The Hunger was released as Les Predateurs in France, which sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Alas, this was probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve sat through this movie, hoping that maybe I’ll find something that doesn’t make it a big snooze, and yet I don’t. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it looks wonderful, with breathtaking shots of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, an attractive, charismatic cast, and of course, that stunning opening sequence.

If you’ve seen The Hunger even once, you’ll remember the beginning. It’s one of the best first five minutes of any film ever, certainly in the horror genre. It opens in a goth nightclub, where Bauhaus is performing ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead.’ A couple, John (David Bowie) and Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), move about the club together, scoping out potential pickups. They are an incomprehensibly gorgeous couple, and everything they do is sexy. They dress sexily. They talk sexily. They smoke sexily. They even drive sexily. They give each other sexy knowing looks. I don’t care where you rate on the Kinsey Scale, if you encounter David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as vampires you will say, “You know what? I just can’t decide. How about you take the carotid and you take the jugular. There’s plenty to go around, take me, you beautiful motherfucks!”

John and Miriam pick up a younger couple and take them home, resulting in a disorienting, creepy scene of them seducing the couple, with lots of tongue and spit string action, then slashing their throats, intercut with shots of Peter Murphy hamming it up for the camera and, curiously, monkeys tearing each other apart. Come on, Bowie almost getting down, then death and monkeys? How can this not be one of the greatest movies of all time?

And yet, despite that auspicious beginning, the film grinds to a standstill immediately afterwards. John and Miriam have been a couple for two hundred years or so, living a luxurious but isolated existence in an enormous, antiques-filled house in New York City, where everything is lit in a soft, hazy, dream-like fashion, curtains blow around in rooms where there aren’t any windows, and flocks of doves take flight. It looks like the set of a Prince video. While John was promised eternal life by Miriam, she left out one thing: though he can never die, he can get very, very old, which he does, within the space of about two days. Quite literally: one day he’s Bowie in his “Let’s Dance” era prime, the next day he’s talking like Leonard Cohen and has a face that looks like a crumpled paper bag. He seeks out the assistance of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a specialist in sleep disorders and rapid aging, who initially dismisses his claims, until she sees that he’s aged another forty years just waiting in her office (and who hasn’t felt like that while waiting to see a doctor?).

John begs Miriam to kill him, but she refuses. He’s cursed to live forever in a body that will very soon resemble an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Conveniently, Miriam’s home is large enough that she has plenty of room to put John into storage, along with her other former lovers, and she wastes no time in finding a replacement, setting her cap for Dr. Sarah. Sarah, regretful about blowing off John, is immediately entranced by Miriam, who eyes her like a sugar-cured ham. She sees Miriam’s reflections in her mirror, and has visions of her playing piano while wearing a veil and weeping silently. They stare longingly at each other while discussing classical music. It’s all very artsy and classy, and really boring. Even the eventual love scene, the only other thing anyone can remember about this movie besides the opening sequence, is almost painfully tasteful. I’m not saying it should have resembled Muffdivin’ Sluts Vol. 16, but it looks like a perfume commercial for Calvin Klein’s Plasma (“Oh, the taste of it.”).

It’s also at this time that the blood exchange takes place, bonding Miriam and Sarah as eternal lovers, though Sarah’s reaction seems to more suggest that she’s suffering from a bad case of stomach flu. Initially reluctant to partake, Sarah inaugurates her new lifestyle by feasting on the blood of her obnoxious boyfriend, to no great loss to the film. However, rather than remain in glamorous but frightfully dull companionship with Miriam for the next two hundred years, she tries to kill herself. The suicide attempt results in…well, I’m really not sure. The house shakes, and then John and the rest of Miriam’s former lovers come out of storage and grope at her in a menacing manner. She flees in terror, falls and then begins rapidly decomposing, after which she’s presumably put into storage herself. The film ends with Sarah living the undead high life, dressed to the nines and surrounded by her own gently blowing curtains, because apparently when you’re turned into a vampire you’re given a subscription to Vogue and a gift card to Linens ‘n’ Things.

“Whahappen?” you may ask, as I did. While your exes all showing up at the same place at the same time would indeed be a scary situation, it’s never really clear why Sarah trying to kill herself causes John and the others to appear, or why they suddenly turn violent towards Miriam (except that perhaps they’re pissed that she stored them away like a bunch of old winter sweaters), or why Miriam herself becomes old. It would appear that some sort of curse was broken, yet the ending suggests that Sarah has not been cured of her affliction, nor does she seem concerned with it any longer. I actually checked around online, and the most reasonable explanation is that somehow Miriam’s powers were taken over by Sarah, though there’s no indicator at any point earlier in the movie that that was possible. The most likely explanation, supported by Wikipedia’s page on the film, is that there was a different ending for the film originally, with Miriam not facing punishment for her misdeeds, and the nonsensical, slapdash second ending was added to please test audiences. These are the same kinds of test audiences, mind you, that thought Fatal Attraction ended better with Glenn Close as some sort of unkillable, Michael Myers-like being, and that Andie should have chosen Blaine.

The Hunger is one of those films you watch and think “Huh. Now what went wrong here?” It looks as though during script rewrite meetings someone said, “You know, this movie is much too exciting. Let’s take out some of the action and the plot and character development and replace it with long stretches of silence, where everyone just seems to be deep in thought about something. It doesn’t matter what they’re thinking about, it could be their own mortality, it could be how much they enjoy bacon, as long as they’re sitting there and not doing anything, that’s what counts. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the most interesting character before the movie is even halfway over. And we might as well give it a new ending that’s completely incomprehensible, as long as the audience gets to see the ‘bad guy’ punished, even though she’s not really ‘bad,’ per se, just distant and resigned. Did we get all that? Great, now we have a perfectly mediocre movie.” You really want to like it, you do. It’s got a good cast, a fascinating premise, but my god, it really is like watching paint dry at times. If you watch a film for costume and set design, it’s fabulous. If you watch a film for anything at all to happen, you’re going to be gravely disappointed. It’s fortunate that the filmmakers kept it to an hour and a half, any longer than that and viewers may feel as though they’ve reached the same fate as poor, decrepit John.

NEW ADDENDUM: Yeah, I was probably too hard on this, and I’ll tell you why–it’s not just the natural charisma of David Bowie that makes it worth watching after all (though it still remains far more a nice looking movie than an exciting one), but the fact that it was an obvious influence on Only Lovers Left Alive, one of my favorite movies of 2014.

It might not make sense that a movie can make another movie released thirty years earlier come across better, but go with me on this. Though with similar dreamy, languid pacing, Only Lovers was upfront with what The Hunger hinted at, that the life of a vampire, usually portrayed as one fraught with constant excitement and sexual tension, is really rather monotonous and lonely. How much does life still have to offer you if you’ve already existed for hundreds of years? How exciting can being a vampire get if you have to keep yourself hidden from the world at large, if all you can see of a rapidly changing world is captured in darkness and shadows? This is done with a surprising amount of wry humor, which is something The Hunger distinctly lacks.

After exhausting all the pleasures that literature and music can offer, all Adam and Eve, the main characters of Only Lovers really have is each other, and they cling to that with a resigned fierceness. The way their relationship is portrayed actually makes Miriam, the main character of The Hunger, more sympathetic. While it’s not really explained why John suddenly grows old, it’s clear that she grieves the loss of her beautiful, youthful lover. If she seems a little quick to replace him with Sarah, one can assume it’s not that she didn’t love John, it’s that she can’t bear the idea of eternity alone. Let’s face it, that’s a horrifying notion for anyone to ponder, and it’s why it makes the inexplicable ending all the more maddening–Miriam is not the villain in The Hunger. Time is.

The Hunger is currently available on YouTube

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