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'The Hunger', a strange cult classic starring David Bowie and Susan Sarandon

'The Hunger' - Tony Scott

The Hunger is an undisputed cult classic. A film in which the aesthetics and music of the burgeoning goth movement were crystallised, it is now seen as a pivotal moment in the existence of goth. After the release of this 1983 movie, the goth handbook had been written, and now the movement had a defined character moving forward. Duly, the rest of the decade was to see goth reach its zenith. 

Aside from what it did for the goth movement, The Hunger is also legendary because of the cast that it boasts. Directed by the late auteur Tony Scott, the picture starred Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. Loosely adapted from the 1981 novel of the same name, the film saw the aforementioned names form a vampiric love triangle.

Also starring in the film are Willem Dafoe, Ann Magnuson and silent film star Bessie Smith in what would be her final role. The movie is a strange, very ’80s picture, but you cannot doubt the quality of those involved, giving it an inherent juxtaposition as the cast are amazing, but often let down by the script and editing. 

Another iconic part of the project is the fact that English goth heroes Bauhaus star as themselves during the opening scene. The band play their chilling masterpiece, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, and it was this that truly helped to cement goth as a tangible cultural force. Never before had all the once separate elements of the movement been tied together in such a concise way. 

Typically, cult films are criminally underrated in the mainstream and have an underrated quality, but the thing about The Hunger was that it wasn’t underrated at all, it just was panned. Many detractors claim that for all the aesthetic beauty it withholds, the film seriously lacked in the substance department, and when rewatching it, this is clear as day. Bowie himself said: “I must say, there’s nothing that looks like it on the market. But I’m a bit worried that it’s just perversely bloody at some points”.

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Bowie’s point was backed up by feminist heroine Camille Paglia, who dived into the film’s meaning in her seminal 1990 work Sexual Personae. She weighed that although the film bears hallmarks of “the classy genre of vampire film”, it is “ruined by horrendous errors, as when the regal Catherine Deneuve is made to crawl around on all fours, slavering over cut throats”. Paglia explained that she felt that this was indicative of the film’s focus on violence rather than the eroticism of sex, which undermined its worth as a vampire flick masterwork. 

One of the film’s redeeming features is undeniably its post-modernist take on the vampire trope. Fluid sexuality is discussed, and it also shows up the ’80s norm that men and women who were in relationships needed to share the same desires for power, money and sex. The way in which the film uses blood as an allegory for drugs is also very clever. It’s one of the more stylish vampire films out there, and the first 20 minutes are an incredible whirlwind, leaving you gasping for breath. 

In a way, you could also make the claim that The Hunger set the stage for Bowie’s most iconic film role, as King Jareth in 1986’s Labyrinth. The complex villain that he played in Labyrinth took many of his cues from The Hunger in the sense that his character was a confused one, with a strange, sexualised streak running through him. 

One of the most confounding cult classics ever released, The Hunger will leave you with many unanswered questions after watching. However, the effect it had in helping the proliferation of the goth culture was massive.

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