Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 30 October 2006
Features: 31 Days of Horror
It wouldn’t exactly be an embellishment to declare that Tony Scott doesn’t get much critical respect. The customarily dismissive stance on Scott’s work is perfectly demonstrated in a recent Esquire Magazine article, in which critic Mike D’Angelo attempts a slightly insouciant comparison of Tony’s career to that of his more distinguished older brother Ridley. D’Angelo, a critic who casually infuses his writing with a comfortable quantity of comedy, drolly defends Tony’s consistency at creating “aggressively, memorably bad” movies whilst still managing to disparagingly refer to the veteran director as the cinematic equivalent of Ringo Starr. Actually, D’Angelo then decisively describes the younger sibling’s filmmaking tactics as basically “Ridley on steroids,” whereby the “approach tends towards bludgeoning” with narratives so frivolously asinine that they aren’t worthy of significant consideration, before he compares Tony’s “disreputable” movies to the implicit mediocrity of a McDonald’s meal.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to argue with D’Angelo’s appraisal, and I mostly agree with his characterization of Scott’s brash cinematic methods, especially based upon his more recent efforts. Of course I wasn’t always aware of this prevalent perception of Scott’s films and I certainly wasn’t particularly sympathetic towards this generally accepted attitude. Indeed, when I was younger, I usually just ignored such critical evaluations as elitist posturing and was content to enjoy Scott’s entertainment, blissfully oblivious to the flaws in his seductive style of cinema.
I finally confronted my insufficient assessment of Scott’s work while watching True Romance with an incisive friend. Minutes into the film my friend became so entirely aggravated with the film’s erratic visuals that he shouted at the screen in exasperation, demanding that Scott “quit cutting!” Meanwhile, having encountered a valid criticism of Scott’s craft, I was preoccupied with the unsettling realization that I wasn’t as keen an observer as I prided myself upon being.
I scrutinized Scott’s subsequent films with a slightly more critical gaze, which possibly resulted in overly harsh, rather unfair, judgements on my part. One of the films that I watched and weighed after my eye-opening incident was Scott’s debut feature, The Hunger. An adaptation of an allegedly lurid little Whitley Strieber story, I impulsively discarded Scott’s trashy vampire thriller as another exercise in surface style over significant substance, partly due to the influence of the prevailing opinion that Scott’s films were merely empty, elongated commercials full of MTV music-video flash.
Years later I returned to The Hunger without much anticipation only to be surprised at how the film’s shamelessly sumptuous style remains so utterly absorbing and expertly effective. It also made me realize I had become somewhat of a biased blockhead. Though the claim that Scott’s film lacks sufficient substance may hold merit, The Hunger constantly displays itself to be crafted remarkably well. Indeed, if Scott’s film is loaded with the type of shallow filmmaking he is frequently accused of applying, its brash style is adeptly designed in service of the film’s story. No matter how abrasive and excessive Scott’s style may be his techniques are entirely appropriate for the subject matter within the films he chooses to create.
In order to appreciate Scott’s first feature one has to admit that the director’s cinematic decisions are not as arbitrary as many critics assume them to be, but are instead deliberate and decisive creative choices attempted in service of his story. The Hunger is unusually straightforward in comparison to the twisty tales that typify Scott’s more recent films, thus probably allowing the viewer to concentrate more on Scott’s techniques and consider their value accordingly. Essentially The Hunger tells the tale of Miriam and John Blaylock, a privileged and attractive Manhattan couple who have a penchant for feasting on the blood of others. The seductive European vampire couple must lure their prey into their posh home before attacking these unsuspecting victims and swallowing the crimson fluid that courses through the veins of their casualties. While their vicious actions appear distasteful, their deeds are done in order to sustain their youthful appearance and thus the pair are resolutely reclusive in an effort to guard the privacy of their affairs and lifestyle.
It turns out that Miriam brandishes most of the control within the relationship because she is the elder creature. An ancient Egyptian vampire priestess who has survived for centuries, Miriam long ago blessed John with eternal life, promised to love him forever, and ensured him that their marriage will endure over time. Unfortunately, Miriam lasting gift turns into a horrible curse, as John suddenly discovers his body to be deteriorating rapidly, aging a lifetime within a matter of days. In an effort to salvage the quality of her lover’s life, Miriam hunts down the help of Sarah Roberts, a medical expert on the effects of sleep on aging, who currently devotes most of her time to researching Progeria, a condition that accelerates the aging process due to premature degeneration of body tissues. Sarah views aging as a disease that can be cured and hopes to reverse the process or at least slow down the body’s internal clock. Naturally, the Blaylocks are fascinated with Sarah, since she is searching for a scientific means of attaining the longevity that vampires already possess. Unfortunately, when John visits Sarah at her offices, she feels pestered by his presence and chooses to ignore his urgent appeals, allowing the man to wither away in a waiting room, dooming the refined gentleman to a sentence far worse than death.
Upon John’s eventual demise, Miriam desires a replacement to spend eternity with and becomes ever more tantalized by Sarah. Determined to collect the young doctor as her companion, the mesmerizing older woman decides to subtly seduce Sarah before sinking her teeth into the attractive American. Unknown to Sarah, Miriam has tainted her body with a voracious lust for blood and, once discovered, Miriam attempts to alleviate Sarah’s panic with the promise of the immortality she has been so desperate to discover. Unfortunately, the torturous present has made Sarah wretchedly dependant upon Miriam’s expertise to satisfy her unquenchable thirst and though she struggles valiantly against her now natural urges and revolts against her alluring oppressor, Sarah’s newfound hunger soon begins to consume her completely.
While The Hunger ostensibly concerns itself with the affairs of vampires, the film stubbornly refuses to even mention the term and entirely ignores a great deal of the myth that surrounds these mysterious creatures. Rather than depict his cruel central couple as monstrous embodiments of supernatural evil, Scott deliberately treats them as if they were merely amoral humans, either representing an advancement in our evolution or suffering through a debilitating disease. In fact, for the most part, Scott avoids passing absolute judgement upon the callous couple, often portraying them as victims of unforeseen circumstances that were created from their own misguided choices. Instead, Scott’s film primarily focuses upon contemporary fascinations with extending human life, delaying our inevitable death, and impeding the process of aging, as blatantly demonstrated by one character commenting on her mother’s fear “of getting old.” Indeed, time is very valuable in The Hunger, as indicated by the constant mentions of chronological measurements within the script sculpted by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, as characters repeatedly refer to hours of the day, days of the week, and years of existence.
However, Scott wholeheartedly embraces the more sensual aspects of the enduring vampire myth and nowhere is this more apparent than in the macabre beauty of his central cast. In casting Catherine Deneuve as Miriam Blaylock, Scott perfectly captures the everlasting beauty associated to vampire legend, and sensibly emphasizes her tempting lips with a deep crimson coloring. Resolved to demonstrating Deneuve’s timeless splendour, Scott bluntly juxtaposes her close-up with that of an elderly woman to make his point explicit. Scott also shrewdly casts Miriam’s lovers, choosing two actors that have their own distinctive allure. As John Blaylock, David Bowie exudes a chilly elegance and a frightening vicious streak, but is also able to suggest a gentle humanity and a subtle hint of sorrow. Meanwhile, casting a young Susan Sarandon as Dr. Sarah Roberts provides a believable element of temptation, but maybe more importantly adds credibility to a research scientist role that might have been ludicrous in anyone else’s hands. Since he’s making a film about immortality, Scott wisely accentuates the pale complexion of all three leads in order to express their unvarying proximity to death.
Scott is also aided considerably by Bowie’s slender frame and slightly feminine features, since it allows Miriam’s bisexuality to appear more plausible. Scott exploits Bowie’s androgynous appearance by often comparing John with his eventual replacement Sarah, slyly emphasizing similarities such as their red hair and occasionally having Sarah mimic the mannerisms and movements that John displays in earlier scenes, such as the stroking of his hair. Oddly, Bowie’s notoriously androgynous appearance is actually upstaged by a young Beth Ehlers. Playing a tomboy named Alice Cavender who lives across the street from the Blaylocks and regularly stops by for violin lessons, Ehlers is nearly unrecognizable and it’s actually quite startling to realize she is in fact a young girl. However, her puzzling appearance is fitting since Alice is apparently the only outsider who spends any significant amount of time with the Blaylocks and treats them like a surrogate family, and thus her presence continues the film’s constant gender bending.
Scott’s fixation with the overt sexuality of the vampire myth is displayed almost immediately as the film opens with our callous older couple arousing the attention of a licentious younger couple at a local club, while Bauhaus performs their most famous song, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” allowing Scott to throw out an obvious reference to vampire horror film history and also indicate that New York’s Gothic past may be concluding. The two couples quickly move back to the Blaylock’s East Side palazzo to engage in an enticing game of partner swapping, with the older couple remaining calm from experience while the young adults becoming increasingly exuberant. Fully content to tell his story through visual methods Scott allows the opening minutes of his film to pass by without much discernable dialogue save for the morose post-punk vocals of Peter Murphy, sporadically interweaving brief bursts of ominous drum beats with the high-pitched synthetic screeching and wailing of early industrial rock to heighten the tension.
Scott then furiously combines his sinful scene with exceptionally violent images, abruptly cross-cutting between the seductive movement of human limbs and the brutal attacks within constrictive animal cages, tying together the primal urges of both parties. While the Blaylocks draw their razor-sharp weapons to slice the throats of their victims, the monkeys across the city unsheathe their teeth to tear the flesh off their mates. Both animals attack their prey without remorse, only ending their assaults once Scott inserts the image of a desperate scientist effectively pleading simultaneously with the Blaylocks, monkeys, and audience to “stop it!” We are left to watch blood drip off the monkey cage and slide down white porcelain walls.
Thus, The Hunger announces itself as an exciting mesh of chic and shock by assaulting our senses with a furious mixture of unrepentant sights and sounds before settling into a more serene tone. However, perhaps lost in the cinematic “bludgeoning” is the clever visual point Scott makes about his characters. Within the opening moments and throughout the rest of his film, Scott purposely places certain characters within their own figurative cages using carefully constructed shadows and framing, often inventively using the shadows cast by window blinds as symbolic restraints. The specific targets of this technique are John and Sarah, forever bound by their mutual search for immortality, both destined to be imprisoned by Miriam’s promises of eternity.
In fact, Scott goes to great lengths to signal John’s eventual demise and foreshadow his ultimate fate. Though we get the sense that the Blaylocks are permanently preoccupied with the search for new conquests and have stalked thousands of prey over the centuries, once John finishes his latest feast of flesh he realizes time is no longer on his side and that the existence he has known for countless years will parish within a few days. While the Blaylocks cleanse themselves in a pristine white shower after their kill, John asks Miriam to reaffirm her vows of everlasting love to him, but sadly she is growing distant. Unable to sleep properly, John’s body begins to shrivel and decay before his eyes and he remains helpless. Scott stresses John’s dwindling supremacy by constantly relegating him to the fringes of his frame, almost as if the film itself was prepared to discard him in a similar manner as Miriam. It’s actually downright astounding how little authority Scott is willing to grant John within each composition, even diminishing his stature while he sits on a coach across from a nurse perched at her desk. Perhaps even more sinister is Scott’s inclination to endlessly enclose and squeeze John within doorways, windowpanes, and mirrors, essentially imprisoning the terminal patient within successively smaller cells with barriers he cannot break. Scott’s method becomes even more impressive once we witness John’s resting place. Not surprisingly, Scott will later repeat these same techniques once Sarah accepts Miriam’s adulterous invitations. In contrast, Scott permits Miriam to occupy more open and expansive compositions as if to signify her authority to take actions without restriction.
Of course, Scott isn’t entirely satisfied by conveying John’s eventual doom merely through his compositions. Once John discovers his disease and ventures towards Sarah’s laboratory is search of a cure, the fashionable gent strides down New York City streets in a pitch black outfit as if dressing for his own funeral. Even though The Hunger, like so many other Tony Scott films, tends to fluctuate between stark darkness and radiant illumination, John’s trench-coat is a startling morbid anomaly, particularly since the Blaylocks’ wealth affords them the luxury to surround themselves in the immaculate purity provided by their distinctively white apartment design. In contrast to the dreary wardrobe that John clings to as he approaches death, Sarah often wears a white of lab coat as if to signify her constant battle to sustain life. Unfortunately, once infected, Sarah appears in Miriam’s home draped in a similarly dark trench-coat, as if she has also accepted her own encroaching demise.
John and Sarah also share an indirect connection through the monkey that Sarah concentrates and conducts the majority of her research upon. The monkey is unexpectedly experiencing a rapid aging which causes various unpredictable symptoms and finally concludes in the creature’s death. Scott isn’t particularly subtle in drawing a parallel between the plight of John and the monkey that the team of researchers study intently. However, Scott’s lack of restraint results in the film’s most impressive scene, whereby Scott weaves together images of John patiently awaiting Sarah’s expert council while progressively decomposing in silence with coarse video footage of the condemned monkey whose tissue appears to be rapidly receding into oblivion, while voice-overs of Sarah’s research team members document the gradual deterioration of both individuals. The entire scene is heightened by Scott’s decision to place a burning cigarette alongside John as he grows stale, with each occupying opposing edges of the frame while smoke leisurely wafts away and evaporates. With each successive visit we make we realize John is beginning to weaken and fade while he sits on the periphery of the composition, ignored by those who could provide him comfort, in a similar fashion to the cigarette that slowly burns until it’s finally extinguished on its own.
It’s obvious that John suffers from a similar sickness as the deceased monkey, as Miriam has contaminated his body with a blood disorder that has damned all her previous lovers. Soon afterwards Miriam will consciously infect Sarah with the same blood disorder without concern for the suffering that the young woman surely will endure someday. Scott doesn’t hesitate to display the literal action of infection in cinematic terms, eagerly inserting images and abruptly dropping in cacophonous sounds at any given moment within his film in order to create a sense of unease within the viewer. Given the sexual nature of how Miriam’s disease is transmitted, the symptoms it inflicts upon its victims, and the time period in which Scott made his movie, it’s rather tempting to assume that The Hunger serves as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis that had begun to grip major American cities in the early 80s. The timing isn’t exactly perfect considering AIDS had just recently been discovered, but it does seem obvious that Miriam’s blood disorder serves as a thinly veiled metaphor for some form of sexually transmitted disease, especially since Miriam’s promiscuity has caused problems for all her other former lovers who must suffer without hope.
The immortality provided by Miriam mostly just results in further misery. However, Scott does offer his audience one form of figurative immortality in the form of art. One particular illustration is the timeless quality of music, best demonstrated by Alice’s devotion to classical music even though she is the embodiment of a contemporary teenager who most would assume to be unconcerned with such archaic forms of music. Nonetheless, the more evident example of art providing immortality within The Hunger is photography. Once again, Alice plays a prominent role by constantly snapping Polaroid pictures of Miriam and John, thus allowing her subjects to perpetually exist as a figure forever trapped in an instant image. Regrettably, it’s also only in this specific manner that our memories of Alice will be preserved. The other method of immortality is supplied by video, as we constantly witness condemned individuals appear the on the Blaylocks’ security camera. The footage offers the world the only evidence of the victims’ final location and a last image to remember forever them by.
Immortality is essentially an individual’s ability to conquer time and in The Hunger Scott seems to be decisively stating that it’s a futile concept to chase. Time itself seems to serve as an explicit concern not only within The Hunger, but within many of Scott’s subsequent films, and though he might not explore the theme in any great depth, he does accentuate its properties quite often in order to tell his tales more effectively. Indeed, every freeze-frame he applies stresses the moment that vanishes instantaneously and every long-take he gleefully fractures exhibits the fragile nature of time. In emphasizing the specific power of photography, Scott is in some ways admitting his debut film will also look quite dated as time passes. However, it will also serve as his record of a specific time and place, forever capturing a beauty held within a city, a culture, and an era that will be lost only after a few short years.