Vampire movies were always cool, but it took The Hunger to make them modern. Before that, film bloodsuckers tended to ooze around in Rudolph Valentino capes, using their ungodly charisma to compensate for their dated fashion sense. The few exceptions – George A. Romero’s Martin, for example, or The Omega Man – took the concept far afield in an effort to escape the cliches. The rest stuck to formula: brilliantly so sometimes, but always with a distinct nod to Bela Lugosi’s king of the undead hill.
The Hunger doesn’t necessarily depart from the genre’s comfort zone, but it certainly updated it: infusing the stereotypes with a little MTV flash and making them feel pertinent for the age in which they arrived. Suddenly vampires weren’t bound to ancient castles and outdated décor anymore. They moved with the times, they were as hip as the latest single, and while they still drained virgins dry, they did it in a way that the kids could relate to. Borrowing a page from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, the film brought the concept fully into the late 20th century. It now looks very dated, but without it, the genre might have been stuck in its roots forever.
It seems fitting, then, that such an effort would come from the late Tony Scott, who pioneered 80s pop filmmaking and who shoots this one with seizure-inducing glee. He tasks Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie to play the vampires: the former destined to remain young and beautiful, the latter cursed with eternal life but not eternal youth. That obviously causes its share of problems, especially when Deneuve’s Miriam sets her sights on a new potential companion named Sarah (Susan Sarandon).
The story, from Whitley Strieber’s novel, is standard-issue Gothic romance. It earns a few points for exploring vampirism in adult terms, but can’t find a more substantive way of developing its ideas. That, unfortunately, was typical of the director, whose constant focus on surface impressions pulls us away from the underlying drama. It’s all flash and no substance… which ironically makes it a perfect way to show how well vampirism suits the shallowness of the 80s.
It doesn’t hurt to have a bona-fide rock god as the male lead, straddling the line between the contemporary and the timeless the way no other performer could. Bowie finds the character’s inherent tragedy, marrying it to the charisma that demands attention no matter where he sits in the room. His character’s predatory qualities arise as a natural part of that equation, as does his inevitable fate (which makes a fitting comment on the transience of pop culture). Deneuve follows up on Bowie’s cues perfectly, helping the now-dated social conventions feel like an organic part of the film instead of a risible afterthought.
It’s an interesting trick, bringing the eternal to a very period-specific look, but The Hunger survives solely on that strength. Scott wanted to stress the Faustian bargain involved in vampirism and turned to the tools of the here and now to do it. What better way to realize how empty Miriam’s bargain is than to see it in the trappings of a bygone era – one that resembles no other vampire film we’ve ever seen? Later films like The Lost Boys exploited the breach it had made, and paved the way (for better or worse) for our current era of Twilight sparkliness. The Hunger bombed like the Enola Gay when it debuted in 1983, and while it’s since attained a cult following, it still doesn’t top the list of great vampire films. Even so, it showed us how these figures could exist in contemporary stories, how they can move in our world without the capes and the cobwebs, and how they can send the genre into the future without losing sight of their past. Every vampire flick that came after it – and that includes some real classics – owes at least a tiny debt to it for getting the ball rolling.