Stories with creatures of the night seducing fair maidens for their blood have populated books and movies for ages, so it’s nice when you come across one with a different take on the subject, and in Tony Scott’s first feature film that’s exactly what we got. Based on the book of the same name by Whitley Strieber, it tells the story of an ancient year vampire and her desire to not walk through the ages alone. The film was savaged by critics of the time, but has since gained quite a cult following. I myself consider it one of the Top Vampire Films made to date.
Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) are a beautiful and incredibly dangerous couple. The ethereal nature of their beauty is as intriguing as it is terrifying. They glide through the New York nightclub scene like a pair of sharks looking for a meal, and that is exactly what they are doing, for Miriam is a six thousand year old vampire. She and John, her current lover who she’d seduced back in 18th century France, have fun as they stylishly take a bite out of New York.
Miriam is not from the Bram Stoker vein of vampirism, she and her paramour do not sprout fangs to sink into the neck of their victims. They do need blood to survive, but instead of pointy teeth they have blades hidden inside ankh necklaces, perfect for severing a jugular.
But there is trouble in paradise, for we learn that there is a distinct difference between the creature that is Miriam Blaylock, and of the nature of the “gift” she bequeaths her lovers. Miriam was never a human; she is an ageless creature that must create offspring to alleviate the loneliness of eternity. When she seduces a new partner in crime she promises them eternal life, and she isn’t lying, but what she fails to mention is that it doesn’t include eternal youth. This becomes quite apparent to John when over the course of a few hours he gains wrinkles, and starts to losing his hair. Feeling betrayed, and rightly so, John seeks out Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), an expert in the field of aging. When John confronts Sarah with his problem she considers him a nut job, and blows him off, leaving him to cool his heels in the waiting room for hours, but when she sees him leave her clinic hours later, looking decidedly older then when he came in, she realizes there is clearly something to his story.
Now Miriam does in fact love John, and has looked into the current research on aging in the hope of finding a solution to her recurring problem, but she is also very pragmatic, as she has been dealing with this issue for centuries. She knows that John’s youthful days were going to eventually end and so she maneuvered a replacement into her life, Alice Cavender (Beth Ehlers), a young girl that she and John have been giving violin lessons to. Unfortunately John’s incredibly rapid aging has left him unable to handle adult prey, and so when little Alice shows up at their home…well lessons are definitely over.
When Miriam returns home to find John a decrepit old man she is deeply saddened, and even more put out when she discovers that he has murdered poor Alice, but she does not get angry. She truly loves John, and what is happening to him tears her apart, but her truly alien nature is an absolute fatalist, allowing her to move on with barely a sad look back. It’s at this point we learn the true horror of John’s situation, as Miriam carries his frail body up to the attic of their home. It’s here that we learn that the creature Miriam turns you into will never die, but will at some point wither into a frail husk, which she then stores up in the attic full of her other past lovers. The scene is as touching as it is horrifying, as Miriam slides the casket, now holding the living remains of John in it, she places a hand on an adjacent casket and calls out, “Lollia, this is John. Comfort him. All of you, all my loves…be kind to him tonight.” It’s a tribute to all involved that both Miriam and John come across as quite sympathetic here, and yet we just saw John murder a little girl mere moments ago.
It’s a this point that Sarah Roberts shows up looking for John, and when Miriam looks upon the beautiful Sarah we immediately know she’s found her next partner. That Sarah is clearly not gay; she’s dating and living with fellow doctor Tom Haver (Cliff De Young) is not even an issue, for when Catherine Deneuve decides to seduce you, well you get seduced. I don’t care if you are man, woman or a piece of furniture. In the original script Miriam got Sarah drunk in the process of seduction, but Susan Sarandon had this changed to just one sip of wine because, “You wouldn’t have to get drunk to bed Catherine Deneuve. I don’t care what your sexual history to that point had been.”
What Sarah didn’t know is that during this intense, and incredibly erotic carnal escapade, Miriam had managed for them to swap blood during one of Sarah’s sexually dazed moments, thus transmitting the vampire virus to her. Sarah finds herself becoming ravenous, but unable to eat. She has her colleagues at work run a blood test on her and they discover that, “It’s as if two entirely different strains of blood were not only present, but fighting it out for dominance.” The thing that freaks them all out is the second, stronger strain, isn’t even human.
When they find a strange blemish on Sarah’s arm she claims no knowledge of how it got there, but she damn well knows, and she heads over to Miriam’s place for answers. Miriam remains very cagey about what is going on, but as Sarah storms out Miriam warns her, “You’ll be back. When the hunger knows no reason! And then you’ll need to feed, and you’ll need me to show you how.” And that is exactly what happens. As the Hunger worsens she is forced to returns, weak and delirious, she crashes in one of the upstairs bedroom while Miriam sees about getting some “food.” Later a jealous Tom shows up at the door asking if Miriam has seen Sarah, he is told she is upstairs and not feeling well.
Having finally fed Miriam thinks Sarah has come to accept her change, but nothing could be further from the truth, and during a passionate kiss Sarah stabs herself in the neck with one of the bladed ankhs. As blood gushes between then, in probably the world’s least erotic French kiss, we realize that Sarah could never live this kind of life, addicted to blood, feeding off the world like a parasite…even an incredibly hot parasite. Miriam then carries Sarah up to the attic where the poor doctor will be spending eternity with her predecessors, but things don’t go according to plan.
Miriam is aghast as she is confronted by her past loves, all looking well past their best sell by date, and while fleeing them she ends up flying off the landing and falls to her…death? What happens next is not quite clear; much of this is due to the studio forcing a new ending that could lead to a sequel. We find Sarah living in a foreign country, with Miriam in a box in the basement. Has Sarah come to grips with being a monster? Is she now like Miriam, and will live for centuries, never aging, picking up lovers along the road to eternity?
On the DVDs commentary track Susan Sarandon states that she was not a fan of this new ending, “The thing that made the film interesting to me was this question of, ‘Would you want to live for ever if you were an addict?’ But as the film progressed, the powers that be rewrote the ending and decided that I wouldn’t die, so what was the point? All the rules that we’d spent the entire film delineating, that Miriam lived forever and was indestructible, and all the people that she transformed eventually all died, and that I killed myself rather than be an addict was ignored. Suddenly I was kind of living, she was kind of half dying… “
Of course the poor box office made the idea of sequels a moot point, regardless if the unclear ending this is still a hauntingly beautiful film. Tony Scott started out in commercials and he took all her learned there to make The Hunger one of the most gorgeous films you will ever see. On the acting front you Deneuve and Bowie who both create these strange etheric creatures that we can’t help but be intrigued by, even when they are doing horrible, horrible, things. Sarandon’s grounded woman of science is perfect counterpoint to these two, and it adds up to make this a most memorable movie.