Tony Scott’s The Hunger, his 1983 film adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s 1981 book of the same name, opens in the most perfect way a vampire movie can: Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock and her husband, John (David Bowie), are cruising for snacks in a goth nightclub. Bauhaus is performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” and everything is glowing blue and cloaked in shadows. Miriam smokes a cigarette in a pillbox hat and cat’s-eye frames; John wears a tailored black shirt with a standing collar and tea shades. Strobe lights shrink into the reflections of their sunglasses. The pair spots a couple dancing together, and all they have to do is wave. Soon, the woman’s leather jacket has been pried open to expose more neck and collarbone, and the man’s T-shirt collar has been cut off to reveal the same. They look a little less polished than before and a lot more vulnerable. After slashing the victims’ throats with blades hidden in matching golden ankh pendants, John and Miriam drink them up and immediately burn the remains in a basement incinerator. Clean eating.
The Hunger was Tony Scott’s feature-film debut after 15 years of making commercials for his brother Ridley Scott’s production outfit. Reviewers decried its slickness but never failed to make note of its incredible sense of style. Scott enlisted master costumer Milena Canonero (of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining), who imbued the Blaylocks with a relentless cool. The word vampire is never uttered in the film, so every little thing hinges on knowing it when you see it. The Blaylocks are immortals of a certain class position and so they check the boxes: They have an enormous Manhattan townhouse filled to the brim with antiquities; they spend their days “mostly idle” in head-to-toe couture. (Deneuve was outfitted by friend and collaborator Yves Saint Laurent.) They wear what looks good and do what feels good, and once a week, in order to sustain their lifestyles and life spans, they feed on human blood. Everything feels apparent in the film’s knowing, supernatural sense of chic.
The plot unfurls in details, from costume and make-up to production design and performance. At the beginning of the movie, John begins to find that, though his maker Miriam’s promise of eternal life is true, the guarantee of eternal youth holds only for her. Catching a glimpse of himself in a Polaroid, he notices some new wrinkles not in his crisp beige suit but in his face. In one day, John ages 170 years — courtesy of the excellent special-effects makeup by Dick Smith, who also did The Exorcist and The Godfather — unknowingly doomed to the same fate as Miriam’s previous lovers: locked away in coffins in the attic, minds intact but bodies rotting. In a last-ditch effort to find something resembling a cure, he pursues Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a researcher studying rapid aging in chimpanzees.
Bowie does a lot with his limited screen time, and John’s decay is wonderfully grotesque. As his age catches up with him, his movements grow clumsier, everything that had once been instinctive becoming torturously labored. He hesitates to draw his blade in a men’s restroom. He tries to kill a roller skater in Central Park but only manages to cut him. When he does claim one final victim — one of the couple’s classical-music students (and Miriam’s intended replacement for him) — he makes a big, sloppy mess of her. As his youth slips away, so does his power. And you can see it: The sleek, strong lines of his double-breasted jacket, which he wore as a young man just the day before, seem to rumple and collapse. He quickly becomes a withered old man in a withered old suit, pathetically begging his partner of 200 years for one last kiss.
Though Sarah initially dismisses John as an old crank, she takes him seriously after witnessing him age multiple decades in two hours. But it’s too late. After John is laid to eternal restlessness in the attic, Sarah shows up guiltily at the Blaylocks’ front door, where Miriam casts a glamour spell. The next time Sarah shows up on that doorstep, she doesn’t really know why she’s there. She peers around at the aging decor — after living through centuries of trend cycles, it’s easy for one’s tastes to become frighteningly refined — and lingers in front of a sculpture. “This is real, isn’t it? You’ve got so many beautiful things,” Sarah says. “Most of it comes from my family,” Miriam replies.
The two women talk over glasses of sherry. Miriam wears a structured black dress with shoulder pads and a plunging neckline, her hair sculpted into a perfect chignon. Sarah is in a blazer and a plain white T-shirt. At some point, Sarah takes the blazer off. She seems a little overwhelmed, though not unnerved, by this beautiful woman and all her beautiful things, especially the ankh pendant resting between her breasts. Miriam sits at the piano and plays the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’s Lakmé. Bluish light beams through the sheer curtains and bounces off her jewelry. It gives her a cold, glimmering aura. Everything about Miriam and her surroundings is a reflection of 2,000 years of practice, an opulence attainable only with an excess of time.
Sarah asks Miriam what she does in her leisure time. When Miriam says, “My time is my own,” Sarah fantasizes out loud for a moment: “Plenty of time for your friends, lots of lunches and dinners, cocktail parties at the Museum of Modern Art …” She lounges in a chair behind the piano and listens. The sleeves of her T-shirt are rolled up, she isn’t wearing a bra, and you see the smallest glimpses of some nondescript post earrings and a smart-looking watch. Her look is emblematic of the increasingly casual ’80s. Her fantasies are those of the proto-yuppie who is not quite there yet but definitely on her way.
When Sarah spills sherry on herself, Miriam helps her take her the tee off, and, inevitably, the two have sex. (I think a lot about an interview with the vampiric designer Rick Owens in the March 2002 issue of DM Magazine. When asked about “the persistent allure of vampires,” he responds: “Well, we know it’s about sex. Most everything is. The idea of devouring, consuming, possessing someone we desire.”) Miriam gives Sarah the gift-curse of everlasting life in the process. At dinner with her boyfriend, Tom Haver (Cliff De Young), Sarah is unfocused and shaky, barely able to look at him. She stares at women swimming in the adjacent building’s pool. She orders a rare steak but can’t eat a single bite. And she’s wearing an ankh pendant of her own. Tom is suspicious. “You just met her, and she gives you a present?” he asks. “She’s that kind of a woman. She’s European.”
At night, Sarah is restlessly, ravenously hungry and vomits nonstop. Tom forces her to get a blood test, and they find two different strains of blood fighting for dominance in her veins — one nonhuman and “stronger than ours.” When Sarah asks who’s winning, she doesn’t get a response. A furious Sarah storms over to Miriam’s building clammy-skinned and slightly delirious in a weakly billowing trench coat. Miriam is honest about her “gift”: The second strain of blood is hers. “You belong to me. We belong to each other,” Miriam says, as she has repeatedly for centuries.
Sarah flees, but experiencing a supernatural withdrawal, she soon returns, sweating through her clothing. Miriam initiates her into the ranks of the immortal aristocracy, her baptismal drink courtesy of Tom after he shows up at the townhouse looking for Sarah. She must get used to the role of Miriam’s lover. “Soon you will forget what you were,” Miriam says. But as the two kiss, Sarah rejects Miriam’s “gift,” reaching for the ankh pendant and stabbing herself in the throat, her blood spurting into Miriam’s mouth. Miriam begins another mournful march to the attic, but as she lays Sarah down, wood creaks, doves fly, and a legion of undead lovers climbs out of their coffins to confront her. She screams in horror as they descend upon her in a flurry of rotting limbs and tattered fabric, tulle veils and lace skirts falling apart as they grab at her.
Fashion loves vampires, and vampires love fashion. Like Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness and Jean Rollin’s Fascination before it, The Hunger depicts a designer’s ideal subjects and clients: inhumanly beautiful beings who possess endless time and money. (Alexander McQueen’s spring-summer 1996 collection, best known for featuring a clear bodice full of live worms, was named after the film.) The Hunger stands apart in how seductive its modern-day vampires are; the look and feel of the film influenced the aesthetic of Propaganda, Fred H. Berger’s foundational goth zine. It is fun to imagine how these supernatural elites adapt to each era; if your body remains forever young and your mind contains an endless number of references, the distinction between contemporary, retro, vintage, and even antique ceases to matter when you’re sustained by an infinite supply of new blood.