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The Hunger

John Badham's Dracula (1979), starring Frank Langella, capped a wildly innovative decade for movie vampires. Though Hammer's Dracula franchise had guttered with the chop-sockey crossover Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), contributions from all points of the compass kept the Undying Count and his familiars busy in such diverse offerings as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971); Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970), which returned with middling fidelity to the Bram Stoker source novel; John Hancock's Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971); Stephanie Rothman's The Velvet Vampire (1971); Michio Yamamoto's Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1974); Bill Crain's Blacula (1972); Vicente Aranda's The Blood Spattered Bride (1972); Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness (1971); Count Dracula's Great Love (1973) starring Paul Naschy; Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess (1973); Andy Warhol's Dracula (1974); Richard Blackburn's Lemora, a Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1975); George Romero's Martin (1976); Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979) remake, and various small screen offerings (from The Night Stalker [1972] to 'Salem's Lot [1979]), plus such gonzo offshoots as Doctor Dracula (1978), Dracula's Dog (1978), Love at First Bite (1979), and the German porno Dracula Blows His Cool (1979). Ubiquitous throughout the decade, the movie vampire could not, by 1980, get arrested.

The success of Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976), John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), and Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) lowered the average age of the American moviegoer and ushered in the era of the slasher film, body count programmers made for and starring teens and young adults where once had trod mad scientists, vampires, vampire slayers, grave robbers, hunchbacks, and sundry Gothic constructs. With a few exceptions (the 1980 indie Last Rites, which transplanted Dracula to New Jersey in the guise of a Garden State mortician), vampires became persona non grata in films worldwide while werewolves (The Howling, Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London, all 1981), ghosts (The Changeling [1980], Ghost Story [1981], Poltergeist [1982]), and date-specific psycho-killers (My Bloody Valentine [1981], Happy Birthday to Me [1981], New Year's Evil [1980]) stomped the terra. It took the aptly-named independent producer Richard Shepherd (The Fugitive Kind[1959], Breakfast at Tiffany's [1961]) to guide bloodsuckers back to the genre fold, with his purchase of the film rights to Whitley Strieber's ambitious 1981 vampire narrative The Hunger. Before the book had met its street date, Shepherd hired screenwriters to adapt the tale of Miriam Blaylock, an immortal being subsisting on the blood of others while offering something like (but not quite) immortality to a string of lovers.

Shepherd had wanted initially to place The Hunger (1983) in the capable hands of British director Alan Parker (whose gritty Midnight Express was an international hit in 1978) but settled instead for affordable first-timer Tony Scott. Kid brother of Blade Runner (1982) director Ridley Scott, Tony Scott came to features from a background in TV commercials, where he had learned to employ an economy of visuals to communicate the maximum mood. (In his lifetime, Tony Scott alleged that he and countryman Adrian Lyne had swapped projects, that Lyne had been assigned The Hunger while he had been stuck with Flashdance.) To bring to un-life the elegant immortal Miriam Blaylock, Shepherd and Scott chose French actress Catherine Deneuve who, then in her late forties but looking ten years younger, was the ideal candidate to sell the concept of eternity. To play Miriam's 300 year-old lover John, the filmmakers tapped reptilian rocker David Bowie (who had as an up-and-comer appeared in a 1969 TV spot for Luv ice cream pops directed by Ridley Scott) while Susan Sarandon (who had just turned down the Geneviève Bujold role in Clint Eastwood's Tightrope [1984]) rounded out the cast as the sultry gerontologist who becomes the object of Miriam's boundless affection.

Though set in New York City, The Hunger was shot in London, where Mayfair's stately Chesterfield Gardens stood in for Miriam and John Blaylock's uptown pied-a-terror. (One week was spent in Manhattan, capturing exteriors, where a young Willem Dafoe was hired to play a street thug.) Strieber's source novel had skated a fine line between the coarse and the cultured, with the tale's first victims being a pair of lumpen no-hopers from Long Island (John attacks the girl while wearing a black track suit worthy of Tony Soprano) and the second an acid-scarred teen prostitute picked up at a pancake house. Adapted for the big screen by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, The Hunger divests itself of such provincial charms, piping in neon and bee smoke to lend to the proceedings a sense of oneiric displacement informed by MTV-style flash. Standout setpieces include a seduction/attack by Deneuve and Bowie on club kids Ann Magnuson and John Stephen Hill (backed by Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi Is Dead") laid under the opening titles, Bowie's subsequent, regretful leeching of a young music student (Beth Ehlers, later a regular on the daytime drama The Guiding Light), his withering to a desiccated husk while beached in Sarandon's waiting room, and Deneuve and Sarandon's highly-touted love scene, shot in gauzy montage and backed by "The Flower Duet" from Léo Delibes 1882 opera Lakmé.

While even the film's detractors admitted The Hunger had style to burn, critics were universally unkind. Writing in The Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert branded the film "agonizingly bad" while Kim Newman (in his landmark 1988 genre overview Nightmare Movies) declared it "artificially preserved, superfluous and unapproachable." Though The Hunger tanked at the box office, the film's fans stayed true, fed on repeat viewings via cable television, VHS tape, and laser disc. Forward-looking from a genre perspective, The Hunger enjoyed a measure of vindication when vampire movies bounced back with a vengeance mid-decade. Films such as Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1986), The Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark (1987), Vampire's Kiss (1988), and Def by Temptation (1990) co-opted The Hunger's visual gloss but laced their narratives with lashings of broad humor. Whitley Strieber penned two sequels to his source novel (MGM had tinkered with the ending of The Hunger to leave room for a follow-up) but no franchise followed. Borrowing only the title, the British-Canadian syndicated horror anthology series "The Hunger" (1997-2000) stayed well away from the 1983 film though Tony Scott directed the premiere episode and David Bowie was brought onboard in the final season as master of ceremonies. Rights holders Warner Brothers have announced a remake of The Hunger but the project has languished in Development Hell, it seems, forever.

By Richard Harland Smith Sources: David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynke (Little, Brown & Company, 2011)

Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz (Crown Archetype, 2009)

The Ridley Scott Encyclopedia by Laurence Raw (Scarecrow Press, 2009)

The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker's Dracula by Alain Silver and James Ursini (Limelight Editions, 1993)

Susan Sarandon: Actress-Activist by Marc Shapiro (Prometheus Books, 2001)

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