The Hunger, Tony Scott’s first film, is a remarkably accomplished debut – all style, swagger and poise, shot through with the postural melodrama that would become so iconic in Top Gun. Right from the start of his career, it seems, Scott embedded cinema directly in the body, since there’s very little dialogue here, and not really much in the way of narrative either – just a loose arc that follows two ageing vampires, Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and John Blaylock (David Bowie) as they become entwined with Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a gerontologist. What unfolds is more corporeal than psychological, much as Scott directs bodies more than characters, in a haptic drama that seeks to address the bodies of its viewers as explicitly as possible. While it’s slower than most of his other films (and his only horror film), it exudes the same kinetic intensity, the same propulsive sense of flow and momentum.
In part, that’s because the style of the film is somewhat at odds with its languorous subject matter. Although these vampires lounge about with a decadent abandon that slows down everything around them, Scott also frames them as embodiments of the MTV aesthetic, and the spirit of music video, that was transforming American media in the early 1980s. Indeed, the film starts with an actual music video, as Bauhaus play their signature track “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” over a jagged, fractured, dissonant montage sequence, punctuated by periodic bursts of silence that are every bit as visceral as the angular New Wave instrumentation. As the prelude to Scott’s film, this Bauhaus track becomes a challenge and incentive to a new kind of horror cinema, one as utterly unlike the classicial lineage of Bela Lugosi as Bauhaus themselves were unlike the rock bands that had come before them. While the mise-en-scene gradually settles down, it never quite loses this music video aesthetic, thanks in part to the regular stabs of disorted sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic, that suffuse Scott’s tableaux.
Building on this opening credit sequence, most of the first act focuses on the vampires as both the ideal subjects and audiences for MTV. Like the subjects of music video, the vampires here feel mannequinised, airbrushed, androgynous, forever young – at least potentially. While Sarandon and Deneuve are older than the MTV generation, they’re both actors who feel young-old, indiscernible in their age. Similarly, the film is attuned to the full spectrum of Bowie’s body, which spends the first act in a continuous state of mercurial metamorphosis, ageing in the span of a single day but becoming more childlike as it does so, in a kind of spiritual sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth. For most of this act (and the film), Bowie is clad in weird prosthetics that eventually occlude everything but his voice. Only Scott could imagine a version of Bowie this far beyond what he had already done, and that ability to render the Thin White Duke completely post-human is part of the auteurist poise of the film as a whole.
However, it’s not merely that vampires are the ideal subjects of music video – they’re the ideal audience for MTV as well. Most of the scenes in the film are backlit, with a cool light that resembles that of television, making it feel as if the characters are always silhouetted against the television that is perpetually on in the vampires’ apartment, where they first see Sarah on a surveillance television as well. This backlighting is so dramatic that it’s usually difficult to make out the vampires’ faces, which are collapsed into their bodies, much as Scott collapses psychology into corporeality, refusing to distinguish between the way we think and the way we feel. Even when the vampires’ faces are fully illuminated by television screens, they’re usually wearing stylish sunglasses that reflect mise-en-scene back at us in miniature.
In other words, television, here, has resolved the age-old vampiric distinction between day and night – especially MTV, which opens up a new late-night televisual experience, producing an endless twilight, a perpetual blue hour. The vampires become symptoms of what Anna McCarthy has described as ambient television – the proliferation of television screens across our daily lives, for a variety of purposes, few of which involve direct or consistent attention. Virtually every scene in The Hunger has a television playing in the background, whether for surveillance, scientific research or product placement, and yet there is very little interest in people consistently watching television for entertainment, and absolutely no sign of conventional television programming. The only character who watches a screen intently is Sarah, as part of her medical research. Yet even this screen, which is used to capture the decay of cells, quickly morphs into a proto-digital field of glitch and static, a vision of the world beyond television, a glimpse of the digital revolution amidst which Scott would hit his stride.
Since vampires are both the ideal subjects and audiences for MTV, music video comes to replace blood as their craving of choice. While they still consume blood, they’re only able to gain sustenance from it when they’re close to a television, which immediately produces a deficit, since there’s only so much television (or so many televisions) available in any given space. To that end, they seek out spaces, and situations, that translate the aesthetic of MTV into real space and time, while performing exotic rituals that, like music video, draw on the transformative power of sound and image when conjoined in dissonant and unexpected ways. Finding the right source of blood, like crafting the perfect music video, becomes a matter of alchemical dissonance, of producing just the right degree of resonant incongruity.
Scott captures this MTV aesthetic as a conjunction of baroque architecture with vivid musicality, embedding music video at its most futuristic within the postmodern neoclassicism of the 80s and the upwardly mobile yuppie generation that it spawned. Everything is clad in flowing curtains that translate the swell and lilt of music video into physical space, while the two major kill scenes pair futuristic and classical coordinates in dazzlingly disorienting ways. In the first, John ventures into Bethesda Terrace, the underground arcade in Central Park, which feels like an impossible remote Gothic vestibule as Scott shoots it here. Yet that baroque arcanity just makes the appearance of a boomboxing rollerblader all the more incongruous – and incongruous in just the right way for John to gorge his appetite for MTV spectacle. Similarly, the next victim is intercepted in the Blaylocks’ house, right when she is reaching a piano crescendo, which sends her blood splattering vividly across a musical stave.
These two MTV spectacles promise a conjunction of physical and virtual space, cinema and music video, that this debut film doesn’t completely deliver. Admittedly, the final act is memorable for the way it distils these two competing MTV trajectories, providing us with periods of unmitigated languor, and then equally jagged montage sequences, typically focusing on red blood cells bursting and forming. But the move to a lesbian vampire narrative feels more generic – until we return, at the end, to the most MTV-like space of all, in the form of a stylised cube clad with the dead and decaying bodies of the vampires’ various victims. This space, at once clinical and visceral, embodied and post-bodily, is the climactic spectacle of the film, and culminates with a stylised sequence in which Miriam ages at an even more dramatic and terrifying rate than John. Forever young only to become prematurely old, the MTV generation has rarely been captured with such brilliance as it is here, in the first of Scott’s many efforts to capture peak bodily flow, the moments when our bodies most hunger for life.