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The Hunger: The David Bowie vampire flop that gained eternal life as a cult hit

(Illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo/Photos: Everett Collection)
(Illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo/Photos: Everett Collection)

When director Tony Scott died in 2012, the obituaries naturally led with nods to his shoutiest box office wins – Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days Of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout. There was barely any reference to his feature film debut and his sole foray into horror – The Hunger, starring David Bowie.

That’s likely because, to the outside world, 1983's The Hunger was an unmitigated disaster. Roger Ebert roasted it as "an agonisingly bad vampire movie" while Rolling Stone dismissed the film as “a minor horror movie with a major modern-movie problem: director Tony Scott develops so many ingenious ways to illustrate his premise that there's no time left to tell a story.”

It grossed just $10.2m at the box office, a mere $347m less than Scott’s next movie, Top Gun, and seemed to vanish from the cultural conversation. But that’s not the full story.

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The Hunger was always too eccentric, too arty, too transgressive to connect with an audience for whom vampire movies meant more mainstream fare like Dracula and Dark Shadows. The word vampire isn’t uttered once in Scott’s film and none of these blood-fiends have fangs or scurry away from sunlight.

Ann Magnuson and David Bowie on the set of The Hunger. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Ann Magnuson and David Bowie on the set of The Hunger. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Yet at the same time as eschewing many of the tropes and iconography of the classic vampire flick, The Hunger has, in the years since, become one of its defining movies. In an overcrowded genre, it stands proudly apart.

The Lost Boys, made just four years later, may have grossed three times as much, but it doesn’t command the same full-hearted devotion The Hunger does. With its shadowy, noirish aesthetic and obsession with death and decay, it’s almost a set text for the goth fraternity.

Not that it was ever intended that way. Movies that are custom-built to become cults almost always misfire. There’s a reason why a cynically-assembled movie like Sharknado doesn’t have the doting fanbase of something like The Room. The Hunger may be flashy, it may be pretentious, it may be occasionally incoherent, but it’s sincere and takes its morbid subject matter with unfashionable seriousness.

From its opening moments, it’s not hard to see why goths have embraced this movie so passionately. It starts in a dark and dank nightclub as the camera cuts back and forth to Peter Murphy, the razor-cheekboned frontman of goth-punk misfits Bauhaus, singing his band’s 1982 hit Bela Lugosi's Dead in a rich, throaty bass.

Elsewhere in the club, a chic looking couple (played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) are prowling, on the lookout for fresh prey to take back to their swish Manhattan brownstone. It’s effortlessly, ineffably cool, throbbing with sex and menace.

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Tony Scott, like his brother Ridley, had his background in advertising and brought that frenzied editing technique to the first feature, a trope that would lead to gripes that his films were more style than substance. But then you could argue that the style of The Hunger is the substance.

French actress Catherine Deneuve with British director Tony Scott on the set of his movie The Hunger. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Catherine Deneuve with director Tony Scott on the set of his movie The Hunger. (Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s a sumptuously made movie, with painterly cinematography courtesy of Stephen Goldblatt (almost every frame could be mounted and exhibited in a gallery) and a soundtrack that ricochets between outre-rock (Bauhaus, Bowie, Iggy Pop) to sombre classical (Ravel’s Le Gibet, Léo Delibes’ Lakmé) to composer Howard Blake’s icy, ominous synths.

Of course, it can be easy to mock much of The Hunger now. Its infatuation with billowing curtains and Helmut Newton-like chiaroscuro lighting sometimes give it the look of a feature-length pop video or some macabre-themed Vogue fashion shoot, but then no other movie in ‘83 looked like this.

Scott was one of the first filmmakers to import that snazzy pop promo aesthetic to the big screen and if The Hunger appears dated now, that’s only because of how assertively contemporary – and sometimes ahead-of-the-game – it was in 1983.

British singer and actor David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s especially poignant to watch The Hunger now, seven years on from David Bowie’s death. In the film, his character, John Blaylock, ages within the space of just one day from a man in his 30s to one in his 90s.

Three hundred years on from his transformation at the hands of his now-wife Miriam (Deneuve), Blaylock begins to realise that his promise of eternal youth was, in fact, a promise of eternal life. When Miriam locks him away in a coffin, forever trapped in a living death, ready to move on to her next, fresh-of-face lover, it’s a shocking moment, as age makes way for youth in the most merciless manner.

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Few loved The Hunger when it was released on 29 April, 1983. Reviews were brutal and it bombed commercially. Even Scott later admitted that if he had the chance to do the film again he’d make it “less self-conscious” and “more gritty and real… it was too artsy, too trendy, too weird.”

French actress Catherine Deneuve and British singer and actor David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie on the set of The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Scott’s movies after this were shameless blockbusters; there’s nothing even faintly arthouse about Top Gun, Crimson Tide or Beverly Hills Cop II.

If The Hunger were made now, it’d probably be called ‘elevated horror’, bracketed with films like Hereditary and The Witch. But back then its brazen artsyness made it stand out at a time when most horrors were low-budget goreathons and, unlike other box office duds of the 80s, The Hunger still has a vibrant and adoring fanbase. And it even has some famous fans. Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks recently cited it as one of her favourite moments of Bowie’s film career, calling it “creepy and strange and amazingly beautiful.”

Hollywood may not have understood The Hunger at the time (“They called it esoteric, artsy-fartsy,” Scott told CinemaBlend in 2009), but they’re clearly aware that it’s exalted in certain quarters as a remake is currently in pre-production with a screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story).

Like its blood-thirsty protagonists, The Hunger, it seems, is a film unable to die.

The Hunger is available to buy or rent on VOD.