Pendulum swings in culture are slow and ponderous; they only seem to come all at once because you’re not paying attention. Tony Scott, the famed filmmaker who took his own life this week, represents a point on the arc which carried the cinematic vampire from soulless destroyer to eternal demon lover. Without his stylishness, Twilight would have been a longer time coming.
The Hunger (1983) adapts a Whitley Streiber novel to the big screen, and does so in a moire of light, shadow, sound and sex. Scott’s approach to this material is almost impressionistic. Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) enters the vampiric sway of Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) in a mist of satins, dusklight, lace curtains, flesh and blood. She is Miriam’s new seduction, replacing her husband John (David Bowie), who stood by her side since the Enlightenment but whose immortal flesh has now failed him. He will live forever, yes, but in a casket alongside all Miriam’s past lovers, row on row of them, stretching back to Ancient Egypt, all trapped inside their own decomposing remains.
Miriam and David are rich, sybaritic, surrounded by luxury, and heart-stoppingly gorgeous. As vampires, they’re unimpeded by any of the restrictions on their kind found in folklore — daylight, crossing water, what have you. Their centuries-long affair is codependent: Miriam lies to John about the “eternity” he will experience; John agrees to the periodic ritual murder, carried out with razor-sharp daggers in the shape of an ankh, that will preserve them both.
These murders take place in after seduction; the ones that lack a sexual component — John’s attack on a rollerskater, his killing of the couple’s young student Alice — either fail or provide no sustenance. What’s more, the attack on the underaged Alice may carry an extra shock because by this point in the film, the Blaylocks’ murders have been fully sexualized. So many lovers has Miriam used and discarded, and so quickly does she move to convert Sarah after John’s collapse, that perhaps Miriam needs a lover in order to maintain her own youth and life. This would make her doubly parasitic, and more complex as a character. The film takes specific steps to present its vampires as stylish, carnal, pansexual, desirable creatures who unite love and death within themselves.
The pendulum was already swinging in this direction. Ingrid Pitt’s forthrightly sexual Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers (1970) just wanted love, but brought death as its consequence. Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire began her cycle of vampires as tragic figures of love (but not sex) in 1976. John Badham’s 1979 Dracula made clear the Count had physical intercourse with his intended “bride” as well as taking her blood.
The Hunger moves slowly; much of the rest of Scott’s filmography (Top Gun and after) moves very fast. If there is a hallmark of Scott’s work, it is that each individual frame is beautiful, even if the film created by those frames in motion is later judged an assault or, in The Hunger’s case, a bore. The sensibility he expresses with this film helped open the public mind further to vampires as things of desire, things that could love and be loved … unlike, say, the rodentlike monster of Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu, or even the Draculas of Lugosi and Lee. Doomed love sells, and Scott, like his brother Ridley, was a maker of advertisements.
What else is going on: At Film Freak Central, I addressed
the Sean Connery vehicle Outland.