Friday, May 27, 2022

Bela Lugosi is dead


Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas (based on the novel by Whitley Strieber)

Spoilers: moderate perhaps tipping over into high

1983 saw the feature debut of one of the most successful and iconic British directors of the modern era of filmmaking, and while we might not even need the qualifier "modern era," we may well need to qualify "British": he never made even one movie that wasn't principally American, either in its funding or target audience; I believe the only movie he ever made that wasn't about Americans, starring Americans, and soaked through with a quintessential American ethos was the one we're looking at today (and even these non-Americans played by non-Americans still live in New York for the duration of their film, though it was shot in London); and he lived, died, and was laid to rest in America.

His name was Anthony David Leighton Scott, called Tony, the youngest of the Scotts, and though his eldest brother, Frank, is not a subject of cinematic history, Tony had followed closely in the footsteps of the middle son, director Ridley Scott: Tony had wanted to be a painter, or a documentarian (and these aspirations are both extremely visible in his earliest films), but Ridley tempted him with cash and status (specifically "a Ferrari") to come work with him at his production company doing TV ads.  After over a decade working in commercials, Ridley moved to film; and another half-decade later, inspired by other ascended British commercial directors including his brother, Tony did too.  Thus did Tony make his feature debut, exactly like Ridley, at the tender age of 38technically, Tony made his at 38 and ten months, Ridley at 38 and nine months, so points to Ridley for his precocity, I suppose.  And is it a little strange that two of the most exciting and dynamic new Hollywood talents of the late 70s and 80s were middle-aged Englishmen who'd spent a quarter of their careers hacking out commercials?  Maybe it says something about the spirit of their age, I don't know, though it seems like the greater irony that Tony's whole filmography would prove to be driven by the vigorous sensibilities of an adolescent boy.

Or, at least it would soon: by contrast, Tony Scott's first feature, The Hunger, is obsessed with being old, declining, and murderously desperate for more life, in the first instance (it's a story told in essentially two acts), and, in the second, with being old, depressed, and murderously desperate for something to fill the endless hours of life that remain.  It's ghoulish, but I hope you agree that it's worth noting the resonance this has now: The Hunger, though it was only Scott's first feature, feels more than any other film he would ever make like the philosophic expression of a man who would, eventually, choose suicide.

So: what we're dealing with here, in case the title didn't make it obvious, is perhaps fantasy fiction's favorite vehicle for discussing the hollowness of life that has stretched itself beyond its meaning, vampiresthough it's the kind of movie that refuses to ever say the word "vampires," which works for a long spell even if it ultimately becomes unrewardingly effortful and pretentious.  It was based on a novel by Whitley Strieber, and one naturally suspects that it owes something to Anne Rice; the film, at least, pursues much the same goal of deepening vampires psychologically by making them sad and pathetic, albeit with even more of a post-glam proto-Goth flavor here than with Rice's eternal Byronic brooding.  That flavor is strong enough that we begin with a jaggedly-cut Bauhaus music video on the subject of predator/prey relationships as they play out in dank, angry-looking nightclubs, featuring their band-making hit "Bela Lugosi's Dead."  Which itself is a bold statement of purpose out the gate, letting you know that this is a new kind of vampire filmI've got a good decade-sized hole in my Hammer history, so I don't know how completely revolutionary The Hunger is, but it certainly comes off like a radical break.  It is, furthermore, a hell of an opening gesture for a film to make, to kick off with post-Bowie gothy pop, when that film stars David Bowie only in order to kill David Bowie.

That music video details our vampires' last joint feeding session, accompanying a pair of horny, ill-fated scene douches back to their douche house for what the douches believe will be sexmetaphorically-speaking, it is, though, literally-speaking, they have their throats slit and blood drainedand these events are intercut against medical testing on a pair of rhesus macaques, one of whom eats the other, which is aggressively artsy and barely comprehensible, though it turns out it actually is narrative material.  Happily, the film becomes less annoyingly oblique going forwarddiscounting the absolute bare minimum of exposition needed to explain its story (and it may not hit that minimum), The Hunger is never not somewhat obliqueand we learn that these vampires are Miriam (Catherine Denevue) and John (Bowie).

Miriam is by a substantial margin the eldestdespite her Anglicized Hebrew name (and who can say what her birth name is) she dates back, at least, to ancient Egypt.  John, by contrast, is only a couple of hundred years old, originating as an 18th century fop whose cello skill attracted his mistress's attention and won him her offer of immortal love.  He is, nevertheless, only the latest in a line of companions, and he discovers precipitously that the vampires his bride makes are not truly built to last, having found himself beginning suddenly to show his age.  Very suddenly: in a last, vain effort to reverse this, John makes an unwelcome visit to a doctor specializing in aging studies, Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), but none of his exertions so much as prolong the inevitable; by the time he sees Miriam again he's aged to the point of being unrecognizable to anyone but her, and perhaps she only recognizes him because she already expected a cadaverous old man.  He collapses and his creator lays him to his, let's say for now, "rest," but she's soon eying his replacement, in the form of the good doctor.

In fact, let's pick up that stray thread immediately: John didn't die.  He essentially died, but as he begs his creator for release Miriam explains she can't help him, and their breed of vampires really does never quite end, still eternally conscious and aware even as their bodies shut down and decay.  (The Hunger hopes like hell that you will not ask how she knows this: it would be difficult to prove the negative that regular dead people aren't eternally conscious and aware in their graves, except by reference to thermodynamic and neurological principles which don't seem to apply to vampires.)  Well, in any case, I discussed Ridley Scott up top for a reason beyond his and Tony's kinship: The Hunger winds up (I assume not entirely by design) being a fascinating little sideways response to his brother's film from the previous year, Blade Runner, with Roy Batty's thirst for more life from his god inverted, so that John begs his creator to kill him instead of save him.

It also feels very much like an aesthetic object made by someone who took Blade Runner very much to heart.  But for a brief moment let's consider what doesn't completely work about The Hunger, or at least what bugs me about The Hunger, mostly the modifications it makes to vampire lore.  No fangs, for starters.  Likewise, The Hunger's vampires' preference for dim, moodily-lit spaces feels more like an expression of their personalities than it ever does a physical aversion to sunlight; when they wear their hats and veils in the face of the sun it reads more as a fashion thing, and potentially just ordinary-human skincare, prompted only by the extreme pastiness of its lead actors.  It is, surely, better that The Hunger does not pause itself to explain "actually, our vampires are different and here's how" (it'd be hard for it to pause for anything given its 97 minute runtime and emphasis on silent contemplation), leaving much of its world-building and even its character-building shrouded in tantalizing mystery and indirect allusion.  But their vampires are so very different that it can get confusing.

I don't really mind it: the confusion may even be part of the point.  It's an artifact, it seems, of the Strieber novel's recourse to a more scientifically-explicable vampirism, though whatever the novel does, the film uses its medical subplot pretty exclusively as a bit of thematic parallelism, rather than an avenue for actually explicating its idiosyncratic vampire mythology.  When it threatens to do so, it makes things worse: Sarah's dipshittish doctor boyfriend (Cliff De Young) is almost implausibly on the ball when it comes to Sarah's encroaching infatuation with Miriam, somehow snatching the energies of their lesbian tryst out of the ether, but when it comes to puzzling out the origin of the foreign blood vying for control in Sarah's blood sample, the guy might genuinely live in a world where vampires are not a well-attested cultural trope.  Which just makes you wonder why Bauhaus would name a song after Bela Lugosi if they weren't.

Of course, it's not really a "plot" movie, so much as one concerned with mood and texture, which is another way it's Tony's take on Ridley's Blade Runner.  It approaches that grand world-building epic about mortality from the other direction, and scales it down mostly to just what Tony could make out of the five floors of a classy brownstone and, in the persons of Denevue and Bowie, a pair of performers who might be the most obvious candidates for "sexy Eurogoth vampire" in cinema history, whom their director principally deploys as posable mannequins for a vampire fashion shoot (they do, indeed, also rather resemble mannequins) and, occasionally, as vessels for Dick Smith's gross effects makeup.  This is not, of course, the same as saying The Hunger is without depth, any more than Blade Runner is, though it is certainly more obscure than its blaringly-unsubtle sibling film, so that whatever it's "saying" about life and death seems almost graspable right up until you try to pin it down; and I mean this in a complimentary way.  (It is a tiny bit less obscure, however, if you know that its final scene shouldn't be there and was added only at the studio's insistence: it's a fun final scene, in the way it's "fun" for horror movies to end on glibly nihilistic reversals, but it makes no sense even for a movie that hasn't considered sense-making a priority, and not even one person involved in actually making The Hunger seems to have liked it.)

Predominantly, The Hunger might not even be "about death," but about a study of relationships embedded inside a morbid horror sex fantasy: for a movie with so little plot, it's remarkably willing to be structurally shocking, and honestly I don't like revealing that it dumps our presumptive protagonist in a pine box halfway through, though you'll agree it'd be difficult to discuss the movie without doing so.  That means that the only character we spend the entire movie with is Miriam, with Denevue quietly managing subtle dimensions across sequences that are not necessarily built with character work in mind, so that it can simultaneously be true that she has loved and still loves John, but is also sufficiently unmoved by his "passing" that she scarcely waits 24 hours after throwing him into her attic with the rest of her rotting paramours before aggressively attempting to replace him.  "The hunger" of the title is at least a little bit of a double entendre, thenwell, triple entendrewith the howling void of Miriam's loneliness turning her into a figure of deeply-upsetting psychological horror, not merely evil, but wretched, a god who has long since lost any ability to perceive men and women as anything more than animalsusually as foodstock, and pets at bestbut cursed to seek in them, forever and without satisfaction, whatever it is she doesn't have within herself.  Scott and Denevue are diabolically well-tuned to the inhuman rhythms of her relationshipsand for the record, Bowie is terrific himself, even if he spends a good chunk of time in corpse makeup, quietly bringing out the tragedy of John's belated realization that their arrangement was never one between equals.  Miriam is, in any case, the predatory bisexual of all time, a fulfillment of the promise Dracula's Daughter made half a century before.  It's a dreadfully effective trick The Hunger plays, using our awareness of how she bores with her old lovers before she callously packs them away to color how we perceive the "hot" part, where she seduces her new one.

Not that the scare-quotes should suggest it isn't hot, even if it involves more biting and blood than the average person prefers in their sex: Denevue's icy masteryit is at least implied that vampire hypnosis is a thing here, though it's as easy to imagine it was just the most efficient route between A and Bcontrasts nicely with Sarandon's warmer, fleshier sexuality.  (Which contrasts nicely with Bowie's, to boot.)  But by the same token, it's almost abstract, like ideas of sex floating dreamily across the screen, which would become one of Scott's calling cards, a remarkable combination of pretty blatantly horny material with erotic expressionism that made it as artsy as it is sweaty.  It is, anyway, only a special case of what Scott's been doing the whole film, which I've blathered on about being "about" all sorts of things, but what The Hunger is truly about is, like, fabrics, and Venetian blinds, and marble floors, and the occasional dove, and cathode ray tubes, and dry ice, and how the mesh of a mourning veil interacts with the depth of field of a Panavision lens and how the angles of its folds intersect the lines of a Panavision frame.  It is, of course, so much about flowing curtains blowing in the breeze that it match-cuts one flowing curtain blowing in the breeze to another flowing curtain blowing in the breeze across 5000 years.  It's not always flawless in its pursuitsSarah's "1980s house" is one of the single worst things I've ever seen in a movie, so fortunately we only see her bathroom (soaked in purple neon) and kitchen (soaked, mind-bogglingly, in orange, like the inside of a fucking E-Z Bake oven) for about two aggregate minutes, and I guess the idea was to make it as distinct as possible from Miriam and John's elegant crypt.  But while it would be a pain if every movie looked like this, it's great that this one does.  Most of the aesthetic choices are flawless, even if they're overwrought, and it's not just the visuals; I'd certainly include the elegiac, Vangelis-y electronic score.

It all has precisely the sensibility of a commercial director, but in the best way this could possibly be meant, as a collection of images meant to impose a specific response on the viewer about how they should feel about a physical objectwhether that's a veil, a curtain, a steak, or a Bowie or a Sarandonchopped up into vignettes, intended to have their narratives conveyed principally through high-impact compositions and editing choices.  Consider the movie-within-a-movie where John ages forty years in four hours in Sarah's waiting room: it would obviously feel much jokier, but taken out of context, it could be a TV spot, even if in context it's perfectly-designed to get across the horror of John's plight.  And obviously the preponderance of flowing curtains, let alone a mirror built into a bed that seems to exist solely so we (or, with some utmost charity, Miriam) can see Sarah's butt while she's fucking her, makes large stretches of The Hunger feel like either a porny perfume commercial or a rock video.  (One of Scott's disciples, Michael Bay, was obviously thinking about The Hunger as much as he was Bram Stoker's Dracula for "I Would Do Anything For Love.")

It's an utterly sensuous movie above all, then, hedonistic and a little empty, but that emptiness is an active force; it uses its sensuousness as the means to tell its story, far moreso than its plot or dialogueeven the performances are really just another textureand even if it's weird about it, it gets across in Stephen Goldblatt's cool blue-dominated cinematography the constant sensation of walking through a starkly beautiful mausoleum, cold and clammy and haunted by centuries-old music played joylessly, and by all the vague, inchoate dissatisfactions of its occupants' endless lives.  The film climaxes with a measure of justice, and that's crowd-pleasing in its way (it is, anyhow, a truly great horror movie scene), though what lingers is that feeling of living death.

Tony Scott was always a consummate stylist, and the concern with surfaces as a source of inspiration in their own right would remain with him throughout his career.  But The Hunger almost seems like a one-off nevertheless: Scott's movies would always kind-of look like this, but would stop feeling like this soon, with only Top Gun entirely resembling it, and in such a different register that it's no mystery why people never pair them even if I think they make an interesting double feature.  If it had done better (it tanked), I sometimes wonder how Scott's career would have evolved; given his stated influences for The Hunger, maybe he would've been the Nicolas Roeg I actually liked.  Well, that's an alternate history, and we can simply appreciate The Hunger for what it is, a supremely disquieting horror movie about age and death and sex and curtains.

Score: 9/10

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