Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #4: Tony Scott's THE HUNGER (1983)

Well, I'll give it this at the least - I won't be able to get out of my head "Bela Lugosi's Dead" for a few days/weeks/years now...

You know, it's one of those things that in screenwriting you sometimes need to have exposition.  It's not something that audiences or critics like - or maybe they do, I may be out of touch with the times, i.e. the gobs of semen poured over for Nolan films, but I digress - but it's necessary for a story that has a rather original premise.  You may be able to get away with exposition if it's in a creative way (Spielberg is great at this, i.e. the cartoon in Jurassic Park or the fact that Dr. Jones is a professor in his movies and can talk a good lesson to guys who didn't spend time in Sunday school).  But sometimes you just need a character to say a little about what's going ON in a story.  The Hunger doesn't really have that, not to the extent that it should, and that's a problem.

Oh, for sure, Tony Scott's feature-directorial debut is astonishing to look at - at first.  The film opens with what is almost like music-video cutting (maybe a couple years ahead of his time, or planted firmly in 1983 coked-up, gaudy excess in cutting and visual pinache), we see a guy singing one of those classic new-wave songs, "Bela Lugosi's Dead", as chic John and Miriam, aka David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, are in a club, find someone, take him (or was it her, or both) back to their place, use a small knife and cut into their throats for their blood.  It's actually an astonishing opening, for its fast pace, its rigor in taking us into this smoky, spooky atmosphere.  We know right away they're vampires.  Good, so far.

Special guest director, Audrey Lorea (at least I'd like to think so from this and other shots)

We also get introduced to Sara, (Susan Sarandon), who is a doctor with a book and an interview on a TV show talking about Progeria, an illness that rapidly increases the aging process, and she's been studying it in small monkeys for some time (think the disease in Coppola's Jack only less silly).  This connects to these vampires in this sense: John finds that he's not as strong as he used to be, can't play his cello like how he used to, and he finds he has liver spots.  But, wait, huh, he's 30, right?  Or, we should say, an 'everlasting-30'.  It's not entirely clear at first, but Deneuve's vampire turned John about 200 years ago.  And now he is aging.  Rapidly.  Like, by 80 years in a day.

The main question here is, why is this happening?  Damn if I know by the end of this movie.  I would almost be fine if we knew that Miriam lied to John, as well as others she's turned over the years, that only she has everlasting life, and the promise to her lovers is bunk.  Or, perhaps, if Sara came in, was able to take a look at John, and the movie became kind of like a scientific inquiry into the aging process of vampires.  Interesting too, right?  The film has an original take on vampire lore, which is welcome when done in captivating ways: here the vampires can stand sunlight (we don't see them much in it, but we know they can), and they don't have fangs - they drink blood by slashing someone's neck and drinking it up that way.

"See these eyes so... wait, uh, line?"

But the question, for me, never got adequately answered, and that's a problem with the movie.  I don't necessarily need a character to stop the movie dead in its tracks and give a full speech or monologue about it, but at least give me SOMETHING.  The other problem is that an intriguing character is set up with Bowie's John, and I liked seeing Bowie as this laconic, cool, but then shaken (if maybe stirred) vampire at the prospect of aging so quickly.  He even asks to be 'released' and killed by his beautiful French lover, but she says no and puts him away in a box - he goes away for more than half the movie, just barely making a reappearance near the end.  This might be fine too if there was a little more purpose in the Miriam/Sara relationship.  But there isn't.

Maybe this story needed to be longer, and maybe the book it's based on has more detail (loved by many, from what I could tell from a brief scan of the IMDb message board on the film).  But I have to take light of what is here.  And what is here... it sucks having to fly to the 'style over substance' commentary on a film, it's lazy and it's the sort of thing that could be applied to masters of the craft (yes, even slow filmmakers could be called that, like Ozu, if their stories weren't still compelling).  Scott and his set designer and cinematographer create a rich ambiance in this world of Miriam and John's place, with curtains that obscure faces, and melancholy piano music by Schubert (you'll know the one, also used exceptionally in Barry Lyndon).  We get an ominous feeling that has the air of sadness in the filmmaking.

 Here's the rub: it's too much.  It's a fine movie to watch until you realize that, really, this is all Scott's got.  There are moments he can make things suspenseful - a man gets in an elevator, thinks he's trapped, comes out and is attacked by the Queen vampire, or a young woman is playing an instrument and is circled by the aging John.  There are times it becomes a real horror movie, one with teeth (metaphorically speaking) and a sense of how to go from shot to shot that makes for tension and dread.

It's just that it takes itself so seriously and yet is... it's not even so much a 'style over substance' thing as it's lacking a core substance, or the 'Logos' to put it in English 101 terms.  Deneuve is sexy as hell, so is Sarandon, their sex scene is sexy (it'd be hard to fuck that up, and Scott doesn't to be fair), and so is Bowie in his early scenes to an extent.  But all to what end?  For lots of preening and smoking and smoky shots of faces?  It's not enough.

The Hunger's all dressed up, and it only has the curtains and the bedsheets to go to.  Just because every fame can look like a painting, doesn't mean you don't still need some concrete beats to your art-filled intentions.

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