Gorgeous, Sexy, Confusing: A Review of The Hunger (1983)
by Amy M. Vaughn
22 October 2019
Imagine a movie that begins as a Bauhaus video, stops by Flashdance on roller skates, and ends up in Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Got it? That’s The Hunger.
The Hunger takes place in modern day New York. It stars Catherine Deneuve as an ancient Egyptian vampire whose name is (and always has been) Miriam. David Bowie plays Miriam’s centuries-long love, John. As the movie opens, we see them hunting together at the most new wave club ever, where Bauhaus is performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” They pick up a couple and go to their prey’s apartment, where the furniture and lamps are, for some reason, covered in light colored sheets. Of course, instead of sexy times with Miriam and John, arguably the most attractive couple in history, the swingers have to die so the beautiful people can feed. The kill scene is a violent strobe of hard cuts between erotic vampirism, Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy having a seizure, and irate monkeys in cages.
Before I go further, I need to say I like watching this movie. It’s gorgeous. Every set, every scene, every angle is a piece of art. And though it is quintessentially ’80s, the colors are muted rather than dayglo and, outside of the club scene, there are no oversized shoulder pads or giant hair-dos. None of it, even 36 years later, comes off as campy or tacky.
The pacing is slow, which happens a lot in vampire movies that try to show how time drags when you have more of it than you can stand. And the dialogue is frustratingly terse and oblique. But who cares? Because after the first feed, there’s an extended (in true ’80s style) scene of Miriam and John (Deneuve and Bowie) in the shower together and everything that came before is quickly forgotten.
Plot-wise, it turns out that Miriam’s promise to John that they would be together “forever and ever” in not entirely true—or at least not the way he was led to believe—and he begins to age quickly, decades per day. They seek out Susan Sarandon’s character, Dr. Sarah Roberts, a gerontologist who studies aging in monkeys. (Hence the angry monkeys in the first kill scene.) But science holds no help for the now old and enfeebled John.
After he falls down a flight of stairs, an event that would have killed anyone else his age, we learn that John will never be able to die. Miriam carries him to the attic and mournfully entombs him with her other still alive but decaying past loves, of whom there are five or six.
Before long, Miriam sets her sights on Sarah as her new love interest. She enthralls her and within days they are in bed together. There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad about this movie, but it’s a safe bet that Deneuve and Sarandon’s lesbian sex scene is what made this movie a cult classic. There is a long tradition of bisexual and lesbian themes in vampire movies, but The Hunger is so beautiful and these characters are played so genuinely—the gorgeous and understated Miriam and the flustered and serious Sarah—that it hardly seems to fit in the same cinematic tradition as Blood and Roses (1960) or The Vampire Lovers (1970).
During their intimacies, the women drink blood from each other’s arms and Sarah becomes Miriam’s new companion, only Sarah doesn’t know it. The rest of the movie shows Sarah’s struggle against what she is becoming. Then, in the end, things get really confusing.
Deciding she can’t live as a vampire, Sarah stabs herself in the neck while kissing Miriam, gushing gallons of blood into Miriam’s mouth. Miriam takes Sarah’s body to the attic to place her with her other loves. Why Sarah is unable to heal isn’t explained. While they’re in the attic something happens—maybe an earthquake or something more supernatural—that tips the living corpses from their coffins. They pitch Miriam down the center of a multi-storied staircase. She ages all of her millennia in a few minutes and decomposes. Again, why she can’t heal from the fall isn’t explained. Some have theorized that it’s because she imbibed Sarah’s blood. Whatever the reason, with Miriam gone, her loves are finally free to die. (The special effects in this scene are pretty great.) At the end of this scene we are led to believe everyone is dead.
But the movie isn’t over. There are two more scenes which were added at the request of the studio so that a sequel would be possible. No sequel ever came of it, so these scenes simply serve to make the messy climax even less coherent. In the end, we are shown Sarah enjoying a subdued and beautiful life and then a coffin, hidden away, from which Miriam’s voice calls out for Sarah.
If you go into this movie looking for something stunning, you’ll find it. The colors, the props, the lighting, the people, the sheer abundance of flowing curtains—visually, everything was planned to the minutest detail. And if you can enjoy a sparse script that could conceivably be a forerunner of Only Lovers Left Alive(2013) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night(2014), then The Hungercould be worth a watch. And if, like me, you hit your goth phase in the mid-80s, this movie will always hold a special place in your black crushed velvet heart.
3 out of 5 Dead Bela Lugosis
The Hunger is available for rent from several of the major streaming services.
Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books. Among them are Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and The Shelter (Cabal Books, forthcoming). She is also serving as editor for Dog Doors to Outer Space: A Compilation of Bizarro Writing Prompts (Filthy Loot, forthcoming). Amy lives in Tucson and online wherever writers go to avoid writing.