I’m tapping a NetFlix account, ladies and gentlemen, in order to wander through the neighborhoods of film canon that I haven’t managed to visit. I mean, I’ve seen many of the essentials, from Persona to Star Wars, but there’s quite a block of work that I’ve missed. I’m trying to get a grasp on film canon, from early classics ("M") to Silver Screen ("Casablanca") to Western ("Fistfull of Dollars") to Noir ("Double Indemnity") to contemporary classics ("Pretty Woman"). If anyone can give me a few suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Drop them in the comments section.
One of the first ones I’ve seen – and, admittedly, it’s not really an essential – was The Hunger, an erotic 80’s Vampire movie directed by Tony Scott. "But Jesse," you might ask, "Why, if you’re trying to see the great films, did you start with an obscure cult vampire movie?" Well, let me furnish you with a few different answers. They will come in a cluster, like grapes fresh off the vine.
First: it was available On-Demand from NetFlix, so I didn’t have to wait around for it.
Second: It starts fucking David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. What a cast! They’re perfect for the atmosphere, too... a lush, depraved vampiric world where Bowie’s gender ambiguity and Sarandon’s reserved strength make for a fascinating dynamic between the three main characters.
Third: It’s actually a fairly well-critiqued piece of postmodern cinema. Apparently Diane Fuss wrote an article on the film called "Inside Out." I haven’t read it, but I’d like to check it out... between the gender subversion and the obsession with death, images, and the gaze, this movie is a breeding ground for postmodern interpretation.
But superficial reasons aside, I think it was really worth sticking with it. I’ll give you a couple readings, and perhaps they’ll convince you to watch it, too, and maybe allow you to really appreciate it. The merits I see in this slow, decadent masterpiece may not be the first ones that most viewers notice, and they’re certainly nothing that Roger Ebert was prepared to appreciate, but they make the movie worth its screen time and its DVD space.
The Hunger actually reminded me of Blade Runner, which is another 80’s film commonly considered a "cult classic." Blade Runner was a cool sci-fi, but it wasn’t its science or its action that really made it worth watching. The film was really about finding something sentimental in a cynical, post-sentimental world. That dystopian landscape, a credit to authors like Gibson, was a critical part of this voyage, and the film was the product of its creative and production design as much as it was a product of a script or a director’s instructions.
Pure aesthetic value was a big part of The Hunger, too... a truly lush experience. The sets were gauzy and Victorian, filled in by light through windows, across curtains, and through dusty air. This erotic atmosphere was occasionally broken by the manic sterility of the hospital, or by the morbid anger of a gothic-looking nightclub, but by-and-large, the film took place in Miriam’s apartment, the dwelling place of the matriarch. The key scenes of the film weren’t violent, shocking, or morbid, like you’d expect from vampire and horror films... even John’s final scene was strangely intimate and melancholy. In fact, most of the emotional dynamic in The Hunger manifested in sexual encounters, including Mirian’s sex scenes with both John and Sarah.
No doubt, The Hunger is grown up, and especially so when compared to the other great 80’s Vampire movie, which we should all know and love. I speak, of course, of The Lost Boys, starring Keifer Sutherland and Corey Feldman, among other actor-types. The Lost Boys has the desperate savagery and loneliness of misspent youth, and it uses Vampire mythology to fully rewrite and re-envision deviant teenagehood. This includes a lot of rage, sacrifice, hostility, and ultimately, struggle and violence.
The Hunger, lesser known than its adolescent sibling, can be seen in parallel, but represents a much different aspect of the American Vampire myth. Where David and his gang were explosive, Miriam and John are sensual, and these are two complimentary sides of the gothic sin. Some vampires will kill you, but others will seduce you and offer you things you’re not prepared to accept, and this is itself a sort of suicide.
It’s telling, then, that Miriam’s victims are never seen in death. The beach party scene of murder and sacrifice, so central to The Lost Boys, is displaced in The Hunger with a scene of ritual confinement, a counterpoint to death that’s probably even more terrifying. Even Miriam’s final moments aren’t as violent as we might like them to be.
And as a youngen who wasn’t really there to experience the 80’s, I feel like I’ve unearthed some essential truth about the decade in comparing these two 80’s vampire movies. First, we see the aristocracy of capitalism and hegemony, the opportunistic Wall Street grandeur, that Miriam represents in The Hunger. Alongside this, we see the blossoming experimental energy of New Wave and Heavy Metal, the youth culture that found expression in David (The Lost Boys) and in David Bowie. In these vampire movies, the spirit of the times finds expression, polished off with a dose of gothic cynicism and postmodern consciousness.
This has been a rambling entry, but The Hunger led me through my retrospective experiences of the 80’s, the sourceless nostalgia that makes me such a fan of the culture I was too young to appreciate. It’s a reflection on the pure aesthetic of the setting, on the erotic undertones of vampire mythology, and on the 80’s as a time of both stagnation and innovation. I’d count those as at least three good reasons to go rent it.