Tony Scott is known for directing hyper-masculine, hefty action movies, and crafting impressive set pieces of mayhem and violence. His style is raw, gritty and immediate, as best exemplified by his magnum opus, Man on Fire. Little of this stylistic arsenal is prefigured, however, by Scott’s debut feature The Hunger, an esoteric, refined, and supremely chic vampire film, inspired heavily by the work of Nicolas Roeg and Helmut Newton.
The Hunger is adapted from Whitley Strieber’s horror novel of the same name. Scott is less interested by the ethical or psychological reality of vampirism than he is by the vampire’s extravagant lifestyle. Indeed, Scott’s vampires do not look repulsive, nor do they sleep away their days in coffins. This is not Nosferatu. Instead Scott, borrowing from the source material, presents vampires as an alien species akin to humans. The Hunger centers on vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) whose life began in Ancient Egypt. Every few centuries since then, Miriam has taken human lovers. Miriam’s condition allows her to give her lovers prolonged lifespans and semi-permanent youth. But eventually their metabolism will catch up to them. John (David Bowie), Miriam’s partner for the last two centuries, ultimately suffers such a fate. As he ages and his body deteriorates, Miriam goes on the hunt for a new human partner, setting her sights on Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a scientist whose work specializes in premature aging.
A genre fan looking for mythologized vampire storytelling may be disappointed with The Hunger. And a viewer looking for a character-driven narrative will be similarly dissatisfied. Scott’s film is an operatic collage of mood and emotion, driven more by its fashionable imagery than anything else. At the heart of the experience is the juxtaposition of body and costume, face and make-up. Deneuve is dressed by her signature couturier Yves-Saint-Laurent; Bowie bears aging facial make-up co-created by the legendary Dick Smith (Scanners, The Exorcist); and Sarandon provides a counter-point to Deneuve’s timelessness with an edgier, more expressive and contemporary personality. The Hunger celebrates, in its own eerie, special way, female glamor and elegance. Deneuve is at the peak of her icy and breathtaking persona, while Sarandon has a warm and charming beauty. Most of the film is shot in large and luxurious interiors. Scott’s commercial work is evident, the style noticeably self-conscious. Diffusing light through transparent drapes, creating a subtle play on shadows, Scott created a look that was innovative at the time of the film’s release – a kind of neo-gothic sensibility, a mixture of classical and punk – and has since been recycled in countless advertisements.
The Hunger is slow and sexually suggestive, but never vulgar. Scott’s stylistic self-consciousness notifies us that we are watching a fantasy in its purest form. And although The Hunger is not the work of a dramatist—rather of a sensorial artist—it reminds us the silver screen is the most sacred place of all to open a window on a fantasy world, especially around midnight.