In The Hunger (1983), Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and husband John (David Bowie) are rich and young and in love and have absolutely everything: an inexplicably labyrinthine estate in the heart of Manhattan, yawning, idle days spent on books and orchids and cellos and nights strobing full of Bauhaus and anonymous casual sex with oh, you pretty things, plus a big convenient furnace in the basement where they can neatly dispose of the pretty bodies afterward. Because Miriam and John are vampires. Of course they are. And when you’re Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, how difficult is it even going to be to wind a string of willing victims into the boudoir on a regular basis? They could probably be explicit about the death part and still get stacks of consent forms eagerly signed by early eighties Goths. “Forever and ever,” they promise each other, in the present and in stylish flashbacks, and from both practical and emotional standpoints, there’s no reason to imagine otherwise. Their love is several hundred years old and–freshened weekly with the blood of the living–still going strong; why not be eternal?
Why not indeed? We don’t really know and the movie itself might not either, but that’s the problem at the heart of The Hunger. That’s the problem John Blaylock wakes up to the moment he realizes, fresh from feeding and lovemaking, that he can no longer sleep. Forever and ever.
What John will confront in this film and what his successor to Miriam’s affections, Dr. Sarah Roberts, will quickly learn is how terrifying the promise of undying love really is. Vampires are the most romantic of monsters, with apologies to the Gill Man; they are fantasies. Rarely is the price paid by mortals for their little love bites portrayed as a cost too dear to consider, much less relish. There are exceptions. Let the Right One In (2008) stands out in my own memory, with its tragic tale of 12-year-old Oskar’s growing fascination with the vampire Eli, even as we see the terrible price Eli’s current human companion, now grown old enough to pretend to be her father, gladly pays for her love. The Hunger’s vampiric relationships set the standard a vampire like Eli will live and love by. Vampiric love in The Hunger is lush, gothic, romantic, fantastic, passionate, yes, all the yeses, but it is horrifying in a way few vampire stories dwell much on. I have here argued that Prince Mamuwalde is the best and most worthy of Draculas; I am here to tell you now that Miriam Blaylock is simply the Worst. The core of Miriam’s monstrousness is not because she is dead, but because she is cold.
When the insomnia kicks in, John knows a little bit of what’s up. He’s not Miriam’s first lover, and he knows at least something of how the others met their terrible ends, which aren’t even really endings. Endings would be merciful. Miriam’s lovers’ ultimate destiny, including poor John, is to be entombed–desiccated, helpless, but aware–in steel-lined boxes Miriam keeps upstairs. I never fail to think of it whenever I put my daughter’s Barbie dolls away in their pink canvas storage cube. That’s the sinister, unsaid shadow on the old Dracula tagline “love never dies,” because, after all, what if you’re not talking about a feeling? What if you’re talking about unrelieved physical existence, dwindled and discarded, but voiceless, too weak to move, buried alive? And your one true forever love is snuggling on your replacement downstairs? That’ll make any given Rick Astley song sound like a threat.
As John rapidly turns into jerky–the practical effects hold up well, but it’s hard not to notice that in real life, David Bowie still looked amazing even through a battle with the cancer that took his life at 69–both he and Miriam are drawn independently toward Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a gerontologist researching the relationship between aging and sleep. Whitley Strieber’s 1981 novel, on which our film is based, much like his take on werewolves in The Wolfen (1978), makes much of Sarah’s work, emphasizing pseudo-scientific origins of vampirism along with the practical considerations of being a multiple-murdering, blood-drinking immortal, features that made it unique then and still influential now. The film, however, elides a great deal of Strieber’s careful substance for a few Jedi hand waves of exposition via specious phlebotomy and a general shrug in the direction of Sarah’s research. The science in the film, which at the outset seems so provocative and different, ends up as flimsy as the diaphanous curtains forever gusting through the heart of Miriam’s lair. It does, however, serve as a decent reason for John and Miriam both to seek out Sarah–John hoping for a cure to his rapid degeneration, Miriam the same, but also…hey, that Sarah is on the cute side, dontcha think, Miriam? Sarah thinks John’s a crank and realizes too late that his rapid aging is legitimate. Meanwhile, with great bitterness that colors the audience’s feelings for his wife and his sire, John confronts Miriam, directly asking who she’s sizing up as his replacement–is it Sarah?
He won’t last long enough to do much about it, but the pathos of John realizing his own doom, even though he was murdering a Goth girl when we met him, makes it impossible to idealize Miriam, the film’s real vampire, particularly during her rapid, supernaturally-aided courtship of Sarah. For me, John’s story is the best part of the movie and could have easily stood on its own. Bowie’s performance is typically wonderful, and I love the way director Tony Scott intercuts John’s dawning insatiable wakefulness with a murderous rampage by a sleep-deprived monkey–a test subject in Sarah’s lab–and outtakes of Peter Murphy’s very sinuous, Bowie-y theatrical performance of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” It’s a not-so-subliminal rebus that makes John’s internal torment both bloody and explicit; it must be said that John confronts his onrushing doom with very English exterior composure, which makes his anger and increasingly feeble attempts to feed even more pitiable. It also convicts Miriam of monstrousness almost in absentia; the more time we spend bonding with John, suffering with John, the more we understand the stakes that would cause him to beg, too weak even to stand, not for a kiss, but for death. And even that Miriam can’t bring herself to give him.
Miriam has been busy though. Meeting Sarah at a book signing, Miriam sparks on her, and Sarah’s glazed eyes betray how affected she is even by superficial contact with the vampire. Once mummy John has been boxed up out of sight, Sarah comes to Miriam’s house on the pretext of following up on John’s case. Sarah is busy and important and brilliant and also in a relationship with one of her fellow researchers, but she’s quickly enthralled–maybe too quickly. This part of the film, while beautiful and gorgeously frank, feels rushed to me, and if we were ever meant to idealize Miriam and Sarah’s romance, the speed of Sarah’s submission, going from small talk to sexytimes to bloodsucking in the same golden afternoon, doesn’t give space for it. It underlines Miriam as an opportunist, sitting back like a domme in a lounge chair to watch Sarah–ostensibly there as serious scientist lady–enthusiastically strip, and when Sarah joins her boyfriend for dinner later, his naked suspicion–and her unsubtle ogling of lady butts–seems a little fast-forwarded. Although that’s vampiric love for you. Forever and ever but also right now, because it is more like a spell than a relationship.
And that’s what makes Miriam Blaylock so disturbing. We never really spend much time with her and virtually none behind her eyes. We only see her as a lovely predator. Throughout, Deneuve’s portrayal shimmers and seduces but also carefully maintains that elegant, untouchable barrier, a little bit the way a coffin liner protects the unnaturally preserved body against all the messy weather and natural things that would return it to the earth. Even when she’s clasping a wizened shell of John to her breast and sobbing, tearfully refusing him death though he begs for it, she remains fundamentally glacial and isolated. She’s not crying for John. She’s crying for herself. As she prepares John and slides him away with her other lovers–boxes and boxes of them–she urges them to comfort him and be kind to him, from within their identical boxes. And then she walks away, as she always has done. That’s her nature, and she won’t take time to mourn either. As much as blood itself, it seems, Miriam’s cold heart requires a warm body at all times.
The movie never really explains the mechanism whereby Miriam meets her eventual end. Sarah, somehow succumbing to Miriam’s blood in her veins but not to Miriam, rebels and forces her blood into Miriam’s mouth. A struggle ensues that Miriam apparently wins, but as she prepares to entomb a weakened Sarah, somehow all of Miriam’s lovers escape their coffins to advance on her like the last act of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. They push Miriam from a balcony, an injury sufficient to begin her own rapid-aging process, and all her mummified lovers are released to dust. It would be a very Bury Your Gays ending, except Sarah somehow survives, and so does Miriam. We next see Sarah in a coda, apparently vampiric now, kissing a nameless female lover. Meanwhile, Miriam howls for release from inside her own steel-lined box. None of it makes a lot of sense–how did Sarah get better? How did the mummy lovers get out? If you rejected Miriam because you didn’t want to be a vampire, ok, but now you are a vampire?–but I will say it feels right. In addition to that romantic tableau, directly associating Sarah at the end of the film with Miriam at the beginning of it, we know that the money from the sale of the Blaylock estate and other of Miriam’s assets are benefiting Sarah’s research. So maybe, maybe, she will crack the code and avert others being doomed to eternal love?
Well, except for Miriam. Because Miriam Blaylock is the Worst, not because she is dead, but because she is cold. Forever and ever.
Angela would like to point out that Willem Dafoe has a bit role in this film as Second Phone Booth Youth. Follow your dreams, kids.