In Tony Scott’s The Hunger, a young girl snaps a Polaroid of David Bowie’s character John, and hands him the photograph. His chin is tilted up, eyebrows knitting together in a frown. He’s biting his bottom lip, baring his teeth like a vampire, and in fact in this film he is one, transformed by his undead lover Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) some centuries ago. The Bowie in the photo is a portrait of eternal youth – beautiful and androgynous, smooth skin untouched by age. As the film progresses, John begins to age at alarming speed, prompting Miriam to seek help from gerontologist and TV personality Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon).
Bowie was 36 when he starred in Scott’s 1983 erotic horror, which opened in cinemas just a few weeks after the release of his album Let’s Dance. The Bowie looking at the photo is also frozen in time. Five years after his death, it feels strange and sad to see the late singer and actor contemplating his mortality in the prime of youth. There is a pulse of life detectable beneath his pallor, a human melancholy animating a character whose blood runs cold. John feeds, but he can’t sleep. Bowie looks gorgeous, and dog tired.
Based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber, this moody, sensual vampire movie is mostly remembered as a footnote in Bowie’s acting career. In the opening scene, Miriam and John skulk within a post-punk nightclub as Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy performs “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” inside a cage. (Though the film is set in New York, this scene was shot in the London gay club Heaven.) Dressed in black and both wearing sunglasses, they seduce a couple and lure them back to their Manhattan townhouse, enjoying a little light foreplay before slicing their arteries with daggers pulled from matching ankh pendants.
How very goth chic. Deneuve is costumed by her friend and frequent collaborator Yves Saint Laurent, styled as a 1940s femme fatale in gloves, trench coats and a veiled hat. She and Bowie are perfect as posh vampires, cleverly matched in their aristocratic glamour and cold sexual energy.
Before making The Hunger, the British filmmaker Scott (Top Gun, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire) had been directing music videos, an art form that was booming following the launch of MTV in 1981. His feature debut, The Hunger was dismissed at the time by many critics as all style and no substance. Scott’s use of fast cutting, provocative sexuality, pop music cues and billowing curtains were not considered sufficiently cinematic.
[See also: Bowie the bellweather]
Yet watching it now, the film’s enduring quality is its ineffable coolness, which feels inextricable from Scott’s supposedly lowbrow music video origins. Steamy close-ups of Bowie and Deneuve sharing a shower, Scott’s noirish use of chiaroscuro lighting (inspired by Helmut Newton’s high contrast fashion photography), a silhouette of someone roller-skating to Iggy Pop’s “Funtime” in an abandoned warehouse – the film’s fashionable flourishes strike me as an unequivocal good thing.
It’s interesting that Scott draws from a visual form synonymous with youth culture to tell a story about the horrors of getting old. Youth is a delicious and fleeting commodity in The Hunger, something Miriam knows better than anyone. As John physically deteriorates, Bowie’s beauty is obscured, and Miriam sets her sights on a fresher-faced companion, Sarandon’s Sarah. Much was made of a softcore lesbian sex scene between Deneuve and Sarandon, soundtracked by music from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé. Just as sensual is the ensuing post-coital dinner. Sarah slices into a juicy rare steak and lies to her boring boyfriend about what she’s spent the afternoon doing. “For three and a half hours? You talked?” he says incredulously. “She’s European,” replies a dazed Sarah.
With its emphasis on sex, blood, infection and decay, The Hunger might also be read as a gesture towards the Aids crisis, which was on the precipice of becoming an epidemic in New York in the early 1980s. If so, the film’s position is a conservative one; Miriam is a creature to be feared, her lovers victims who end up irrevocably changed or else dead. Worse still is her grizzly end; the exes she has drained of their youth return to wreak their revenge in the film’s climax. “I love you all!” she cries, before her beauty is lost too.
“The Hunger” is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control