Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Tony Scott had established his career as a commercial director before making his feature film debut with 1983's 'The Hunger.' The opulent and undoubtedly '80s-styled tale about a 2,000-year-old vampire trying to save her rapidly aging lover was critically panned across the board for being a bombastic effort, " ... circling around an exquisitely effective sex scene." Sunglasses at night, billowing curtains, fog machines and neon-dream lighting populate throughout -- paired with fast cuts and mysterious flashbacks. Though the 'The Hunger's' theatrical success wasn't in the cards, the movie found new life on video and stands true as one of the most stylish and effective modern vampire stories to ever hit the big screen.
The film opens with a nightclub performance by the gorgeously gaunt Peter Murphy and his then band, Bauhaus. We're introduced to Miriam and John Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) -- vampires hunting in the shadows amongst writhing, gothic bodies. Their victims are seduced and slaughtered at home in the Blaylock's posh townhouse, which feels like an otherworldly palace that time forgot. But time hasn't been kind to John ... As much as the couple's hedonistic blood feast serves a nefarious purpose, John is racing against the clock -- aging at an astronomical rate. He seeks the help of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who specializes in aging disorders, and while John deteriorates Miriam sets her sights on the doctor in hopes she'll take John's place.
When it comes to modern vampire mythology, most enthusiasts use Anne Rice as the standard by which other incarnations are judged. While the 'Interview with the Vampire' author has undoubtedly left her mark on the pages of vampiric history, female vamps are connected to a much older source -- the real life Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory. This particularly holds true for 'The Hunger's' female bloodsuckers who also share a sapphic bond with the 16th/17th-century Hungarian countess.
Many of the vampires in early '80s cinema found their basis in Báthory's mythology and other legends (not to mention real world anxieties like the onset of the AIDS epidemic) versus that of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula,' which accounts for some of their unusual characteristics. Christian symbolism was often absent from their stories, the undead didn't abide by the old rules, a new kind of eroticism prevailed and the male power structure that dominated Dracula's tale -- pegging women as merely victims -- shifted. Now the killers became more complicated creatures, creating new roles for female vamps at large. Deneuve's Miriam and Sarandon's Sarah not only enraptured lesbian audiences who hadn't witnessed more than low-rent, one-dimensional portrayals of female desire, but also those who craved something more than pretty girls baring their necks for fiendish kisses.
It's somewhat ironic that Scott's film was dubbed too self-indulgent when his movie centers around the icy Miriam. The haute macabre vampire neglects to tell John that the lovers she takes only manage to stick around a few hundred years. Life with the missus isn't so eternal after all. While Miriam's companions eventually crumble to ashen remains, their consciousness lives on. It's a cruel fate for someone who was promised love "forever ... and ever." Miriam's cool and regal exterior, however, belies a certain romanticism we've come to associate with creatures of the night. She's a woman of culture, wealth and status (yes, those are Yves Saint-Laurent
The lush, ethereal work of Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography, Clinton Cavers art direction and Brian Morris' set design is on display in this frame of Miriam saying goodbye to John before she closes the attic door on him forever. Diffused, moody lighting and expressionistic shadows capture the emotionality of Miriam's struggle. There's a serious attention to detail in the shot, which matches the theatrics and striking imagery throughout the rest of Scott's film (supposedly influenced by the works of Polanski, Kubrick and photographer Irving Penn). Things here are staged, much like Miriam's perfectly crafted life of false promises and flashy deceit.
Everything that audiences found difficult to swallow about 'The Hunger' during its release are now attributes that have made Scott's movie a masterpiece for vampire lovers everywhere. Perhaps the film was simply misunderstood as a product of its time where many were still trying to grasp at the complexities of modernity -- political, societal ... and vampiric. Scott's film helped change the paradigm for vampire cinema, creating a slick yet haunting take on the mythology.