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Tony Scott’s The Hunger – A Tribute

August 30, 2012

The bats have left the bell tower …”

A special Under The Radar retrospective

Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

In the tributes which have followed in the wake of Tony Scott’s tragic death, much mention has been made (and rightfully so) of Tony’s most celebrated movies Top Gun, True Romance and Crimson Tide. Little mention has been made of his lesser-known and unfairly maligned feature debut The Hunger.

With this in mind, I dedicate this special edition of Under The Radar to the late great Tony Scott …

THE HUNGER (1983)

Directed by Tony Scott. Screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, based on the novel by Whitley Strieber. It stars: Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, David Bowie, Cliff De Young and Dan Hedaya. Running time: 97 mins.

When beautiful New York socialite and blood-drinking immortal Miriam Blaylock lays her ailing husband to rest, she seeks out a new companion in the form of longevity researcher Sarah Roberts, promising her eternal  life.

Producer Richard Shepherd initially offered the directing job on The Hunger to Ridley Scott, who turned it down, as he was already commited to prepping Blade Runner. Ridley’s agent suggested the younger Scott sibling for the gig, but it was director Allan Parker (having just made Fame for Shepherd) who vouched for him and convinced Shepherd that Tony was up to the challenge. After viewing Tony’s showreel of TV commercials, Shepherd hired him on the spot.

Prior to the The Hunger, Tony had been toiling away on Alive – a film based on the true story of a Chilean soccer team who resorted to cannibalism after their plane crashed in the Andes in 1972. But this project folded after Tony had spent nine months in Chile researching it.

I must confess, before I saw The Hunger in 1983, I was unaware Ridley Scott even had a younger brother – let alone a sibling who was also a filmmaker. It was only upon reading an article in Fangoria Magazine, prior to the film’s release, that I learnt this was so.

(There was also an older brother, Frank, who died suddenly in 1980. But I didn’t know this at the time)

And so it was curiosity (as much as my love for the horror genre) which compelled me to go see the film. Surely, I surmised in my youthful niavete, this Tony Scott couldn’t be nearly as accomplished as his brother. Surely he’s riding on his brother’s coat tails.

Boy – did I get that wrong.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no vampires in The Hunger (sorry to disappoint all those vampire lovers out there). Well, not traditional ones anyway. No pointy teeth. No billowing capes. No turning into bats. No fear of crucifixes or burning in daylight.

Nope.

What we have here is an immortal race of beings who have lived alongside humans for many thousands of years, feeding on us as if we were cattle.

Miriam Blaylock is the last of her race.

We first meet Miriam (played with icy detachment by Deneuve) out prowling New York night spots with her current husband, John (David Bowie). Miriam and John brutally kill a young couple, before drinking their blood and disposing of the bodies in a basement furnace.

“Forever ..?”

John has been Miriam’s long-time companion since the eighteenth century, although (thanks to his weekly intake of human blood) he still possesses the youthful looks and vitality of a man in his thirties. However, as John soon discovers; the effect isn’t nearly as permanent as he was led to believe. In an extremely well-staged and edited sequence, Bowie ages 170 years in the space of twenty minutes. Particularly effective is the scene where Bowie’s aging accelerates while he waits in a hospital waiting room – intercut with shots of a lab monkey experiencing a similar demise.

Bowie’s nuanced performance under Dick Smith’s series of aged make-ups is totally believable – the way he carries himself, his mannerisms and his voice, are all pitch perfect in conveying the impression of old age.

David Bowie – the years have not been kind

Special makeup effects maestro Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Scanners, Altered States) was hired because of his brilliant work on aging Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man (1970) and his work here, ably assisted by Carl Fullarton, is well up to his usual standard.

With the decrepit John consigned to the attic, along with her other undead past lovers, Miriam goes in search of a replacement.

She finds a new lover in the form of Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a longevity researcher whom John sought help from and the two women begin an illicit affair.

During the notorious seduction and love scene between Miriam and Sarah, Miriam introduces her own blood into Sarah’s bloodstream, thereby extending Sarah’s life. The only drawback being, in order to maintain her youthfulness, Sarah must feed on fresh blood or face terrible withdrawal symptoms and ultimately accelerated decrepitude.

Miriam is an immortal who faces a cruel dilemma: to either live an everlasting life bereft of love in perpetual loneliness or look on helplessly as her loved ones wither and decay – over and over again. A cycle of endless heartbreak. Which is worse? Both are on par I suggest, which makes her character all the more tragic. And it’s interesting to note that this very theme was later explored in Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 film Highlander.

It is unclear whether Miriam offered John the choice of extended life or not. In the case of Sarah, she clearly isn’t given the choice. This is where Miriam sows the seeds of her own destruction (at the hands of Sarah) as she fails to recognize the possibility that Sarah might not actually want a life-time of addiction (to blood) in exchange for an extended lifespan.

And so the question is asked – ‘Is immortality worth the price of bloodshed and addiction?’

The idea of cutting to a bloody steak being sliced open on a restaurant dinner plate  immediately after the love scene was to allow the audience a laugh to release the sexual tension created by the previous scene.

As Tony says in his DVD commentary:

“I was trying to release the uncomfortable tension the audience might have felt … when you sit in a movie theatre and you get some really hot and horny sex scene going on and you find this really uncomfortable quality in the theatre – people sorta’ shifting and moving – coz’ they’re either sitting next to their mum or their girfriends or their husband of twenty years who they haven’t had sex with for the last ten. It’s amazing the laughter you get from the audience when you cut from the sex to the steak and the cutting of the steak and all the blood coming out – coz’ the laughter, the big belly laugh was more a sense of relief – rather than the real laugh at the visual joke.”

One intriguing aspect of the film which wasn’t present in the source novel or John Costigan’s original (uncredited) screenplay, came from Tony himself. It’s the idea that a psychic connection exists between Miraim and Sarah – that they, in effect, could be soul mates. In a beautifully-edited scene – Sarah steps off a curb as a lumbering truck approaches. Sensing danger, Miriam presses a note to her heart which Sarah had written and Sarah’s sudden thought of Miriam disracts her so she steps back at the last second, narrowly avoiding being run down by the vehicle.

In the April/May 1983 issue of Cinefantastique Magazine, author Whitley Strieber admitted that some changes in the script were for the better. And that if he had to do it over, he wouldn’t have written the novel same way he did. High praise when you consider that most authors absolutely bristle at the idea of any departure from the source.

The cutting styles and techniques Tony employed in The Hunger were considered revolutionary at the time. The opening sequence in which three consecutive scenes are dove-tailed together is a masterclass in film editing. Flashes of each scene appear in the one preceeding it. In other words: each scene is intercut with the next. So, in effect, these flashes are ‘flash-forwards’ to the next scene. The night club scene is intercut with the beach house killings, which is intercut with the monkey attack in the lab – while flashes of singer Pete Murphy in the night club wailing ‘Undead! Undead!’ are interspersed throughout. It all sounds terribly avant-garde and convoluted – but it works surprisingly well in getting through the intro as efficiently as possible, while maintaining coherence and the viewer’s interest. And it’s a technique I’ve not seen used since in any other movie. But having said that, the frenetic pacing of this opening sequence does indeed sign-post the kinetic energy inherent in Tony’s subsequent actioners. Tony’s editor, Pamela Power, who edited Tony’s commercials for twelve years, also edited Ridley’s first feature The Duellists.

It is often said of the films of both Ridley and Tony that every frame is in itself a work of art. And this is no more evident than in The Hunger. I’d even venture to suggest this film is even more stunning to look at than Ridley’s Blade Runner. Tony’s background as a painter is clearly evident in every single shot.

As Tony says in his DVD commentary:

“I think coming out of art school and coming out of commercials that I was all over every aspect of the movie – in terms of the lighting, the wardrobe, the framing. I still consider the medium of film as painting. It’s all about filling out a canvas and making choices within that canvas.”

The look and style of Stephen Goldblatt’s lush anamorphic cinematography was entirely unique at the time. Tony describes the cinematography as being in the vein of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon – “It’s very traditional, very classical, very beautiful”.

(I should point out that the 2004 DVD release of the film, which I viewed for this post, has been completely remastered – as the original negative had degraded so much over the years. Tony personally oversaw the painstaking restoration to get it back to the way it was originally. And I must say, it looks absolutely stunning)

As he was prepping The Hunger, Tony screened Wolfen (Michael Wadleigh’s 1981 film adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s previous novel) and decided to continue the somewhat stylized look Wadleigh employed for that particular film, in order to give the two films a certain aesthetic continuity. Tony describes the tone of The Hunger as “surreal opera” and says if he were to make the film today, he would make it less “self-conscious” and more “gritty and real” – while still keeping some of the more surreal aspects.

Other notable influences Tony cites on the commentary regarding the look and tone of The Hunger include the films of Nicolas Roeg – particularly Performance, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and the glam photography of Helmut Newton.

photography by Helmut Newton

 photography by Helmut Newton

Music plays an intergral part in The Hunger. Both the Deneuve and Bowie characters play piano and cello respectively and the minimalist score by Michael Rubini and Denny Jaeger is augmented with classical pieces by Schubert, Bach and Delibes.

Of the classical pieces utilized, ‘Trio In E-Flat, Op. 100’ by Schubert is particularly effective in conveying a sense of touching melancholy in the scenes with Bowie and Deneuve. And Delibes’ ‘Lakme’ is instrumental in enhancing the sensuousness of the love scene between Miriam and Sarah.

And british new-wave rock band Bauhaus (fronted by Pete Murphy) perform their classic Goth anthem ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ in the opening night club scene. It’s interesting to contemplate the choice of this particular song to open the movie, as it can easily be interpreted as a message to the viewer, telling us to leave behind our preconceptions of what we believe vampires to be:

‘The bats have left the bell tower, The victims have been bled, Red velvet lines the black box, Bela Lugosi’s dead, Undead undead undead.’

Pete Murphy from Bauhaus – opening titles

If I were to have a criticism of the film (and it’s only a minor one) it would be to do with the somewhat confusing ending – which I won’t be revealing here. It doesn’t seem to make sense in terms of the dramatic arc of Susan Sarandon’s character.

And, as it turns out – there is a reason for it. Apparently the open-ended denouement was demanded by the studio, so that a sequel could be made if the film was a financial success.

Just prior to the release of the film, Tony was in talks to direct Starman for producer Michael Douglas. However, the universal drubbing The Hunger recieved upon its release from studio heads and critics alike immediately shut that particular door.

After its release, Tony thought he had screwed up – that The Hunger was “too artsy, too trendy, too weird”. Because it was his first film (and perhaps because of the lambasting it received), it took him a year to evaluate it creatively, to figure out if he’d done a good job or whether it was just merely mediocre.

“God the critics slammed me so hard, particurly the british critics, who are such intellectual purists (laughs) – they hated this film. So after I read all the reviews on The Hunger, I was so distraught and so upset by my reviews I never read another review until Man On Fire. I was sitting in my hotel room in New York doing a press junket [for The Hunger] and somebody said to me ‘Don’t read the New York Times’. And there sitting on the coffee table in front of me was the New York Times. I sat and had my breakfast, I had my shower and I came back and just kept looking at it. And eventually I couldn’t help myself and it was like I was reaching for a drug (laughs) and I opened up the paper and [film critic] A.O. Scott went after me in a very personal way. I understand critics are there for a purpose, they’re there to inform the public. But they should be there to inform the public in a way that doesn’t feel as though it’s … personal”.

It would be three years before Tony was to secure another job directing a feature.

Tony Scott’s debut feature is a stylish and beautiful film, which raises fascinating questions regarding love, mortality, loneliness and addiction.

While not a perfect film, The Hunger is by no means the vacuous missfire it has been unfairly judged to be.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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3 Comments
  1. Thanks for this. Sounds intriguing. I’ll definitely be checking this title out! Anything with blood-drinking immortals is at least worth a peak.

  2. Andres Moran permalink

    Beautiful movie!

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