I don't count many 80s films among my favorites, in fact I'm pretty fed up with all the reverence 80s cinema has received this past decade. The few that are up there are mostly Japanese animes and films from the second half of the decade. Just to say that my expectations were pretty low when I put on Tony Scott's The Hunger. I'd selected the film because my general interest in Scott's work and because I'm a rather stubborn completist, so you can imagine my surprise when I ended up loving this one. I guess bumping into a rare gem like this at least validates my stubbornness (somewhat).
Tony Scott had this strange period in the mid-00s that got me interested in his work. Crazy editing, lots of visual trickery and bold styling completely overshadowed the narratives. Exactly the things I'm looking for in a good film. I used to believe this was just Scott acting out, but The Hunger puts this particular period in a different light. It seems Scott was simply revisiting a style he had once abandoned in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience. That's a fair choice of course, and you could argue that it is because of these concessions he was given more freedom later on in his career, but it also feels like there's a lot of missed potential there.
From what I've read, The Hunger got a lot of flack when it was first released. I can't say I was very surprised to find many style over substance comments, references to Scott's background in advertising and shifty comparisons to music videos. After all, film is an art form claimed by old souls with an unwavering belief in narratives, and those exact same kind of people (and comments) are still around today. It is the very reason The Hunger still feels pretty fresh and relevant though, as the editing and use of sound feel contemporary and experimental. It may be almost 40 years old, but it still feels like watching something you haven't really seen before.
The story offers an interesting take on vampire lore. No wooden stakes or flying bats this time around, but a woman (Miriam) who turns people, so they can become her life partner. She can spend centuries with one partner, but the magic never lasts and eventually her mate will whither away. Whenever that happens, Miriam has to start the process all over again. The film focuses on such a turning point, though things do not go as planned. Her old partner fights his decline and her newest victim isn't very willing to submit to the fate chosen for her. For the first time in ages, Miriam's own life is at stake.
Visually this was extremely interesting. I'm sure The Hunger benefited quite a bit from its Blu-Ray restoration, but that doesn't take away from the beauty of the camerawork, the smart use of color and lighting and its impressive set design. But what struck me the most was the editing, making this film way more avant-garde than I expected it to be. The unusual cuts create a very unique rhythm and atmosphere that kept me on my toes from start to finish, sometimes underlining the stylishness of certain scenes, at other times feeding the horror. This is not your average 80s horror film.
It's the sound design, in combination with the editing, that makes The Hunger really stand out though. The music itself is pretty basic. There are some good, atmospheric tracks and not too much of that typical 80s synth cheese, but overall it's nothing too out of the ordinary. But the distorted noises, the cuts between different sound tracks and the synergy between the visuals and the sound editing make this a pretty unique experience. The effect can be a little jarring at times, but that is clearly by design, as a way to further cement the horror vibe. Truly exemplary.
The actors do a pretty solid job. I haven't seen too many older films with Deneuve, but she was perfectly cast for her part here. Sarandon is a bit of a positive surprise (always found her a bit bland), while Bowie is basically just himself again. The quality drops a bit once you start looking closer at the secondary actors, but nothing too damning. I don't think the cast has won any prizes for their work here, but it's more than adequate for a film like this, which doesn't really depend on its actors to do the heavy lifting.
The intro is a pretty good indication of what the rest of the film has in store. There are some moments when Scott slows down a little, chasing a more classic/romantic mood, but the rest of The Hunger feels much rawer, dirtier and more contemporary than your average vampire film. That's probably somewhat disappointing if you're a classic vampire fan and were expecting a more traditional film, personally I prefer Scott's approach by a large margin. The more typical 80s finale that shifts the film into full horror territory is really just the icing on the cake.
The Hunger is probably one of the biggest surprises of the past decade for me. I expected just another mediocre 80s horror flick, but ended up with a stylish, perplexing and completely unique vampire film that hasn't lost much of its shine almost 40 years later. It's a visionary film that betrays Tony Scott's immense talent, it's just a shame that he wasn't given more opportunities to let it blossom. The Hunger isn't going to be for everybody, then again that's what makes this film so interesting. If you're looking for something different and you haven't seen it yet, make sure you give it a chance.