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The Hunger puts the bite on the '80s


A film like Tony Scott's 1983 The Hunger could do more to bring the '80s back from the dead than all the neo-New Wave bands, skinny ties and cargo pants haunting fashion runways and city streets today.The Hunger teeters on many occasions near the precipice of camp, with its perpetually billowing curtains, the drowsy melancholia of Schubert and the ambient blue twilight of music videos. Scott's style-sodden vampires-in-Manhattan picture imagines the goths of Gotham as über-New Wavers cruising discos for spiky-haired prey in fingerless gloves (including future performance artist Ann Magnuson). The Hunger's retro-ambiance and horror roots make it an ideal choice for a screening at the Starlight Drive-In, where this Dario Argento-meets-Jordache commercial is being shown as a fund raiser for Out On Film, IMAGE Film & Video Center's annual gay and lesbian film festival. The Hunger has the relentless allure of the kind of pop song you know is tacky but can't avoid turning up.

In casting, The Hunger truly achieves the sublime, as David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve engage in a one-upmanship of deep-freeze sensuality. The android perfection of Jude Law in A.I. or Uma and Ethan in Gattaca has nothing on the spooky blonde-on-blonde chill of Bowie and Deneuve matching cheekbone-for-cheekbone slinky movements and 100-yard stares.

Bowie and Deneuve are a posh set of vampires faced with a predicament any style-fixated urbanite can appreciate: mortality. But The Hunger might just as well be a fugue on sexual boredom and the hunger for an infusion of new blood. While dewy dominatrix Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve) never ages, past lovers decompose into powdery husks in her attic.

In one of this admittedly superficial film's few moments of real emotion, the fragile, suddenly helpless John Blaylock withers into a pillar of dust, assuming the death mask visage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Grandpa. After his death, Miriam fixes her living dead gaze on fresh kill: an angular, molten-eyed femme with an aversion to bras named Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). Saddled with the kind of oppressive dolt boyfriend (Cliff De Young) who practically guarantees a plunge into lesbian chic, Sarah succumbs to what few mortals would be hard-pressed to resist: the Rive Gauche, polymorphous perfection of Deneuve.

The film's most famous sequence has made The Hunger a cult item and equal opportunity turn-on for lesbians and frat boys alike. Miriam helps Sarah out of a damp T-shirt and into a set of sheets in a sequence that would do the maestro of Amazonian eros, Helmut Newton, proud.

In vampire lore, S/M top Miriam is a descendent of the real-life 17th-century sexual sadist Elizabeth Bathory and the progenitor of other thrill kill predatory lesbos like Basic Instinct's Sharon Stone. But Scott's lesbian fever dream soon wears off, and the butch director's pre-AIDS cinema moves toward the implication that lesbianism just ain't natural. One afternoon's delight with Miriam leaves Sarah so tainted, even the composition of her blood -- her horrified deadweight boyfriend shrieks -- is altered. Once that girl love gets in your veins, there's no going back. Sarah slumps like a junkie through the city's streets, at one point bumping into future co-star Willem Dafoe, playing a generic street punk. (Dafoe would soon star in his own bit of '80s-style music video cinema, the Wang Chung-orchestrated To Live and Die in L.A.. Almost a decade later, Dafoe starred with Sarandon in another tale of lonely Manhattan nightcrawlers, Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper.)

Though Scott's superficial style has become something of a pretentious joke, the influence of The Hunger looms large. The pervasive chilliness, from Peter Murphy's Bauhaus performance at the film's opening to the sci-fi rebirth of its conclusion, gets into your blood.

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