One doesn’t have to do any research to guess that it is customary to slant The Hunger for being, essentially, a feature-length Goth rock music video. Or to imagine that it is not generally construed as a masterpiece of storytelling or characterization. Or to assume that the script falters indefinitely and never much goes anywhere. Or to reduce the film to “style over substance”. These are also all true statements for the most part, excepting the last one. For “style over substance” is and shall always be a misguided attempt to reduce film to a false dichotomy, the visual and the script-based, and to imply if not openly state that the visual is secondary to the script, and that it is less nuanced too. Even in instances where the argument is rightfully used to imply a film lacks substance, say for instance Transformers or any other corporate blockbuster of your choice, the argument folds in on itself, for such films generally do not in fact have any sense of style at all. They are films without style and without substance, and cinephiles ought to be more quick to object to claims that what Michael Bay accomplishes every couple of years genuinely qualifies as “style” in any meaningful sense.
One of the few directors for whom the phrase does genuinely hold meaning is action-auteur Tony Scott, younger brother of the generally more respected but woefully hit-or-miss (more like hit-miss-miss-miss) Ridley Scott. The younger brother made a career for himself on works that generally, although not always, did contain certain remarkable and ostentatious stylistic quirks, the sorts of touches that makes one say with assurance “yup, this is a Tony Scott film”, and his films are generally without any substance whatsoever. It is customary to dislike Tony Scott, but that is less because his films are “style without substance” than because his style is less exciting and devouring than it ought to be. When he pumps things up to a critical mass, as on, say, Crimson Tide, he generally delivers fine craftsmanship if not fine art.
The heart of a great stylist is within Tony Scott though, and all one needs to do is check out his debut feature-length film, The Hunger, to see it. Sure, his head wavered when a great paycheck and Hollywood fame came his way, but that is the machine’s fault as much as it is his. He lost his way, but the corporate glut of Hollywood cinema that was the 1980s had many casualties, and Scott was nowhere near the most significant. He started off, as many great stylists of the ’90s did but beating them to the punch by a decade, as a music video director, and he operated furthermore in the wild years of the form where it was new and fresh and home to some of the most exciting visual and aural cavalcades humanly imaginable. This is the problem with bemoaning a film for being a “feature-length music video”, for it implies that music videos are not cousins to cinema in the first place and that they cannot experiment and provoke in the same way a film does. Admittedly, it would difficult to keep the success of a great music video up for 90 minutes or more, and most directors fail miserably at this. However, Scott, for this film, for this one film, achieves something pretty spectacular, creating his own style equal parts impressionism and expressionism but not owing entirely to either. And he crafts what may be the greatest American horror film of the 1980s in the process, or at least the most adventurous and artistically satisfying one.
Telling the tale of ageless vampiress Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve), who feasts on companions over time so that they do not age and can help her in her quest to acquire fresh blood, The Hunger begins with her current companion John (David Bowie) who grows ever concerned she will soon give him up for a new companion when he starts aging interminably in the matter of a few days . At which point he hunts down Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a gerontologist and expert on aging, to help in whatever way she possibly can, but she too becomes involved in Miriam’s devilish schemes and finds her own identity thrust into complicity and confusion. Simple enough, and in Scott’s hands, The Hunger is absolutely a music video. But it is a wonderful music video, a work of penetrating form and perfect construction that is nonetheless a huge gaping mess of loose ends and implied meanings, but a thoroughly exciting mess it is.
Firstly, The Hunger’s narrative is shockingly heady for a Tony Scott film, tackling questions of age and love and betrayal as themes both classical and piercingly modern. Scott’s treatment of age, filtered through harsh blue lighting and grotesque close-ups, fully captures the fear of aging we share as a human species. It puts us in the mind’s eye of the man John who thought he would be blessed with eternal youth and found the slow specter of time, something a normal person could get used to over years, crash down upon him like a tone of bricks. The harsh chromatic qualities of the film investigate our society’s visual treatment of age and its association with loneliness with pronounced investment and clarity, generally rendering the elderly as necrotic masses of hashed-over, heavily-scrawled skin that scare us as we are, even if we don’t say it, scared by them. The way it infuses a creeping sensation of alienation surrounding bisexuality and erotic imagery is also a treat, playing around with sexuality and representation and using its actors’ features in intentionally sexualized depictions of the androgynous type we so like to desexualize in modern society. It is a dense film of multitudinous readings that questions the very idea of representation in cinema and experiments with visual iconography of “others” and the implicit fear society has toward them.
Theme is all well and good though, but a horror film should always work most directly as gut impact or else it’s all for naught. Thankfully, gut impact is a close friend to Tony Scott. Considering Scott’s next film Top Gun would set him unfailingly down the path of low-brow Americana, it is amazing and surprisingly how entirely European this film is, how abstract its geometric treatment of human space and empty cityscapes can be, and how vocal it is about its cosmic, alien qualities where humans are mere geographic spaces in a worldly stew of mood and space flowing in and around the frame. Marinating his film in a garishly blue variant on German Expressionism, Scott envisions a modern world as alien to his decrepit vampires as it is to us. There’s a baroque quality to it all, very much having studied that most European of American directors, Stanley Kubrick, and the new-kid-on-the-town Michael Mann (whose impressionist blues bathe this film in a devious, devilish glow). The way he uses Bowie and Denevue and Sarandon as pesky, contorted visual spaces on screen, moving around one another like an erotic ballet and standing still like decades of weight are suddenly pushing down on them, may be the most European thing about it, further enhancing the smoky late-night abstraction of the piece. The astounding neon nightmare of the film’s climax equals anything achieved by the Italian masters around this time for pure bloodlust and phantasmagorical dread let loose on screen.
Yes, the whole thing might as well be a David Bowie music video, but it makes no bones about being anything else. Its opening scene, in fact, and probably its defining gesture, is a metallic demon of a Goth concert as Bauhaus plays “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” like a vampiric croon swooning over the frame. The film opens here, the band’s lead singer Peter Murphy crashing into a metallic cage like a sinister block of menace bathed in cool blue that slowly curdles into abstract cold. When our two vampires find their victim and do what vampires do, the screen erupts in a battle of red and blue images and sounds straight from the devil’s parade. It’s like Dario Argento in a fight to out-direct Michael Mann, and if a battle between those two directors, both masters in entirely opposite but equally artistic styles, doesn’t sound like exciting cinema to you, well, I pity you may be lost, just as Scott was when Hollywood came calling. This is not a work of “style over substance”, but a work of style that becomes substance. That, my friends, is how you make a film that works because it is a film, and only because it is a film, the most exciting species of cinema in existence. A music video it may be, but Scott’s film is both a nerve-shattering opera and a sense-fraying aria.