Review of “The Hunger”

Between Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer there is The Hunger (1983), a stylish update on vampire lore that has withstood the test of time.

Boasting a kick-ass soundtrack, New York City nightclubs, big Cadillacs, and little knives in the shape of ankhs, The Hunger also pivots on a lesbian relationship between the beautiful Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and the gorgeous Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon).

When The Hunger was originally released in 1983, even the classic Desert Hearts was still two years in the future, and Ellen and Rosie were still in the closet. In that context, The Hunger was somewhat revolutionary. Although the lesbian relationship in the film is by no means a happy love story (being marred by the murder of unsuspecting children and lovers), it nonetheless does portray two women who are unashamed of their attraction to each other.

And now, just in time for Halloween, this terrific flick has been released on DVD, complete with commentary by Susan Sarandon and director Tony Scott.

Based on the 1980 book of the same name by Whitley “Alien Abductee” Strieber, these vampires aren’t the typical fanged, scared-of-garlic, stake-through-the-heart variety. First, the female vampire is dominant; second, they can live in sunlight, have beautiful houses, and tutor the neighborhood kid. And finally, after they feed they must sleep, or else they will perish. (This movie could have been called The Tired, but that title just isn’t as sexy.)

The Hunger opens in a New York nightclub during a bigger-haired, higher-waisted time. Vampires Miriam and John (yes, that’s David Bowie) cruise a super-cool club where Peter Murphy rocks the fantastically appropriate Bauhaus hit “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” They pick up a new-wave chick (Ann Magnuson) and her boyfriend and whisk them off to a remote (i.e. New Jersey) mansion for some apparent kinky spouse-swapping. But instead of sexy shenanigans, the vampires make a snack out of the couple and return, exhausted, to the city that never sleeps for a necessary nap. However, John discovers that he is unable to sleep — a sign that he is going to suddenly and horribly begin to age rapidly.

Meanwhile, Dr. Sarah Roberts and her cohorts are smoking like chimneys in their research facility because one of their test monkeys freaked out and ripped apart his mate. Dr. Roberts is studying the effects of sleeping on aging and has recently had a breakthrough, and when Miriam sees Dr. Roberts talking about her research on TV, she tracks her down to help her friend John.

Dr. Roberts is unable to offer any assistance, however, and John begins to age into decrepitude. Meanwhile, Miriam’s interest in Dr. Roberts’s research has changed to an interest in Dr. Roberts, which brings us to one of the best seduction scenes I’ve ever seen on film.

It portrays the fascination and obsession of infatuation, with a spot-on depiction of having that new, special person constantly on your mind. And then, when that persistent desire becomes undeniable, Sarah Roberts employs a classic, not-so-subtle clothing removal technique (involving spilling some wine conveniently on a white shirt) to get Miriam in bed.

The scenes with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in bed together aren’t bad either, and the two women have a great chemistry that carries the intensity of the scene well, particularly when Miriam lustily makes Dr. Roberts into a vampire. Later on, Dr. Roberts falls sick and, after some tests, discovers that she has an alien blood strain in her body, one which will eventually force her to choose whether to kill Miriam — or to join her.

The attack on Dr. Roberts’s blood seems to be more a comment on the corrupting influence of a deviant sex act on a straight woman than it is about a fear of AIDS (since this film came out before AIDS was in the public consciousness), and this metaphorical condemnation of lesbianism is the movie’s lowest point — but then again, it is a horror flick made in 1983.

The Hunger on DVDIn fact, given the year of its release, the film’s portrayal of bisexuality is actually surprisingly progressive: Miriam really does care for both John and Sarah, and Sarah falls for Miriam despite clearly identifying as heterosexual. (Of course, this film is also an example of the Evil Bisexual stereotype in action, but that’s pretty much to be expected from a vampire flick.)

The story’s pacing becomes a little slow when it tries to delve into the science behind the transformations, and a little clunky when it tries convey too much character information in the beginning. The horror element, which is mostly presented in subtle undertones throughout the movie, makes an over-the-top comeback at the muddled ending of the movie. It’s as if the director suddenly remembered he was making a horror movie and had to throw in some scary sound effects and showcase some monster makeup.

But fans of vampire flicks — and early lesbian films — will nonetheless enjoy this movie, which gives us a very different kind of vampire, as well as some stellar, seductive performances from Deneuve and Sarandon.