Apr. 29, 1983—The Hunger may not have drawn blood at the box office—or even garnered much critical appreciation—upon its release in U.S. theaters. But the erotic horror movie opened a vein for Hollywood to tap into the emerging energies of two transatlantic cultural forces: New York’s downtown scene and London’s advertising directors.
Over time, the film became a special cult favorite for two different audiences: those transfixed by its scenes of the “goth” club life, and a gay/lesbian community that welcomed one of the first –and certainly one of the most explicit—depictions by a major Hollywood studio of a same-sex love scene, in this case involving Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.
The film was based on a novel by Whitley Strieber, but you would never know it originated from this source material just by looking at what was onscreen. (Thirty years later, Sarandon had no idea the movie was based on a novel, let alone that the latter spawned two sequels in the early 2000s.) Its characters are largely ciphers, and the plot—an 6,000-year-old (give or take a few years) Egyptian vampire having to replace her rapidly aging 300-year-old mate—is reed-thin.
Forget about selling such a story to an audience. How do you even interest studio execs in giving it the green light? Hollywood is addicted to “The Pitch,” a one-minute-tops description of a plot that can take the form of a formula (“fish out of water,” such as Beverly Hills Cop) or an improbable mash-up (going further back for inspiration, “Abbott and Costello Meet the Wolfman”).
I suspect that the pitch that might have worked for producer Richard Shepherd was “MTV vampire movie.” The same phrase could also apply to Grace Jones’ Vamp, or The Lost Boys, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jamie Gertz. But The Hunger got there first, so it deserves the credit—such as it is—for the style.
Such movies depend less on plot and character than on atmosphere. In the case of The Hunger, it struck me as similar to MTV (still only two years old at the time) because its director, Tony Scott, was part of a generation of British filmmakers who got their start making videos and commercials. (Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and brothers Ridley and Tony Scott made a big splash in Hollywood in the 1980s with work that set a premium on rapid cutting and moody music that often substituted for dialogue.)
Tony Scott (tapped to direct after Parker turned down the assignment) was certainly fascinated by the musical element. After discovering the group Bauhaus in a London nightclub, he ended up using their song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" in the opening credits of The Hunger.
Even Scott’s casting was designed to appeal to viewers with avant-garde musical tastes. Ann Magnuson, a performance artist and nightclub proprietor, ended up playing a victim of the male vampire John. And John himself, the cellist mate of Miriam Blaylock, was played by David Bowie.
Even Bowie, an artist as captivated by image as by sound, wondered about Scott’s preoccupation with the visual, which the rock ‘n’ roller felt was “nearly all of what he [Scott] was doing. He did not have great ideas about the through-line of the story. It was about moving one interesting visual against another.”
In one sense, Scott, in his rookie effort, was a throwback to another filmmaker of the Thirties. Let’s see: an émigré director with a fixation on light and frank lack of interest in narrative coherence, with cinema centered on a cool continental “Blonde Venus” with as much appeal to women and men—is that Scott with Deneuve, or Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich?
Starting with the two novels often considered central to the vampire fiction, Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the genre has featured a strong undercurrent of the sexual. The Hunger amplified that theme, not only through the greater freedom that filmmakers were increasingly enjoying in depicting sex and violence but also by appearing in a time when the notion of contaminated blood could not only be viewed as symbolizing transgressive intercourse but as actual fact.
Dracula was published in 1897, at a time when medicine had still devised no effective means of fighting syphilis. In 1981, the first headlines had started to appear discussing a deadly new disease mysteriously striking the gay community, and two months after the release of The Hunger, nearly 1,300 AIDS cases had been identified in New York alone, with 483 deaths.
One Canadian academic, American studies specialist Priscilla L. Walton, in Our Cannibals, Ourselves, sees The Hunger as “one of the first post-AIDS movies.” That identification grows stronger when thinking about the milieu of the early scenes of the movie: the kind of underground nightclub where drugs and unprotected sex flourished and destroyed lives.
Indeed, Sarandon’s character, Dr. Sarah Roberts, is a gerentologist whose ground-breaking scientific research involves monkeys and blood work. When Deneuve’s Miriam decides that the good doctor would make an ideal mate to replace Bowie’s John, the icily beautiful piano-playing blonde in the mansion effects a transfusion of blood in which Roberts, instead of curing the mysterious disease she’s investigating, finds herself experiencing similar: loss of appetite, dizziness, vomiting, and loss of color.
Critics greeted The Hunger as coldly as the touch of Miriam’s hands. Roger Ebert, for instance, assigning it only a star and a half, called it “an agonizingly bad vampire movie.” Yet, in the very next clause, he pinpointed why its fans would embrace it, referring to its “exquisitely effective sex scene.”
Same-sex erotic scenes, in which the partners were unapologetic about their orientation, were rare at this time in Hollywood, and even in genre films. (The Vampire Lovers, an adaptation of Carmilla, had been released in 1970, but that came from Hammer Film Productions, a British studio that specialized in shock and schlock.) So, when a mainstream studio like MGM released a film with this content—and did so not with unknown actresses, but the likes of Deneuve and Sarandon—it marked a departure in how the LGBT community was depicted onscreen.
Scott would survive his critical roasting and go on to make one of the greatest—and, in its way, deeply emblematic—hits of the 1980s: Top Gun. His path to sleek, sexy, stylish cinema began, if inauspiciously, with The Hunger.