by Evan J Peterson
Tuesday will be the third night of SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film and Discussion Class, located in the Scarecrow Video screening room. This week, we’ll watch The Hunger, my favorite vampire film of all time, featuring Catherine Deneuve as the master vampire plus Susan Sarandon, undead David Bowie, and Bauhaus!
Stats on The Hunger (1983)
Body count: Five who stay dead? Some come back, after all. Also, two monkeys.
Nudity: Yes, male and female
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes.
Major protagonists: two female, one male
Villains/Antagonists: depends who you’re rooting for…
Major actors: Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, David Bowie, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers
Director: Tony Scott
Writers: Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas (screenplay), Whitley Streiber (novel)
Does it stick to the book: more or less, with a radically different ending
Why do I love The Hunger so much? Let me count the ways.
The film centers around a vampire couple, Miriam and John Blaylock, played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. Two of the most beautiful and coolly otherworldly people in cinema play rich, arrogant, bon vivant vampires. I have a fashiongasm every time I see what Deneuve wears as she floats around on camera. Without spoiling too much, Susan Sarandon plays human scientist Sarah Roberts, who becomes involved with Miriam and may—or may not—be the next vampire Miriam sires. It’s the first film to my knowledge that takes seriously the question, “Would you want to live forever if you had to also be an addict for the rest of eternity?”
So, just for starters, we have a bisexual love triangle between Carol from Repulsion, Janet Weiss from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. From a feminist perspective, we have two smart and cunning women, one a doctor and one a thousands-years-old vampire aristocrat, neither of whom seem to rely on their male partners for anything but pleasure and occasional emotional support. Miriam is clearly the dominant partner in her relationships, be they with men or women.
Much of the lure of this film comes from the ultra-smooth directing of Tony Scott, and it’s his first feature film. It’s a quiet and visual movie, which has led many critics and horror fans to pan it, but I think that’s a failure to enjoy a broader range of taste. It’s not a John Carpenter flick, though it’s as slowly progressing and creepy as The Thing. It’s an artsy, sinister Gothic horror that manages to be very ‘80s yet also timeless (other than the fact that someone smokes a cigarette in just about every scene).
Lest we forget, it’s one of the best-acted vampire films out there, featuring highly talented performers whose characters spend more time struggling with life and death than ripping open throats. But there’s great throat-ripping action too, some of it intercut with Peter Murphy gothing it up while performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” and looking directly at us in close up. This opening sequence has been ripped off recreated in the music video for “Written In Blood” by She Wants Revenge and most recently on the new season of American Horror Story, with Lady Gaga in the Deneuve role as a glorious glampire whose outfits make me swoon and whose acting ranges broadly from staring to fucking (can’t win ‘em all).
Both male and female characters’ bodies are focused on in erotic ways, doing some equalizing of the nudity/gaze. It’s debatable whether the rather too-soft sex scene between Deneuve and Sarandon is empowering or disempowering. The womens’ bodies are on display in ways that mens’ aren’t. Then again, the lesbian scene has been immensely popular among lesbians (not all, mind you). It’s a film written and directed by men, starring (assumedly) heterosexual actors doing the same-sex scene. As a result, there is way too much gauze blowing in the wind, opera soundtrack, and light petting. This is what the team behind The Hunger thought lesbian sex would look like.
I consider it significantly less exploitative than most lesbian vampires on screen, particularly popular in European exploitation horror cinema during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It simultaneously nods to and trumps the blood-and-tits lesbian vampire romps of Hammer Studios, etc. The nudity and sex between women strike me not as a form of porn but as a stylish and dignified exploration of queer relationships during a rather conservative era of American film.
Fun fact: Tony Scott directed Top Gun right afterward, which contains the ever-popular homoerotic volleyball montage. This led to Scott’s first two films being listed in gay and lesbian publications as among the hottest queer scenes on camera.
But where did the trope of the bisexual or outright lesbian vampire come from? Certainly we see crypto-queer or overtly queer male vampires throughout cinema, from Dracula to the incredibly gay Interview With The Vampire, in which a long-term couple of male vampires literally adopt a kid together (and occasionally lick each other’s necks). But when it comes to gay female vampires, look no further than Carmilla, a vampire novella that predates Dracula by 26 years and contains several major similarities.
In Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, main character Laura’s father takes in a wounded girl to live with them. Laura recognizes this visitor, Carmilla, from a strange dream she had as a child. Carmilla kisses Laura in ways that make her wonder if Carmilla is actually a young man disguised as a woman. It’s not subtle or cryptic—Carmilla is clearly gay. Ultimately, Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire—one that preys exclusively on other women. Like Dracula, Carmilla is very likely informed by the true case of Countess Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Bathory, the infamous “Blood Countess” who tortured and murdered hundreds of young women and girls to bathe in their blood. On film, Bathory is consistently portrayed as lesbian or bisexual, including in the very well made film The Countess, directed by and starring Julie Delpy (a rare example of horror film directed by a woman—we desperately need more of these). Other excellent female-led vampire films include Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned (also female-directed) and Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.
Whatever your sexual interests, I think you’re likely to find something hot in The Hunger, along with ultra-chic visuals, excellent performances, and a good old fashioned bucket of blood.
Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: The Hunger!
You can reserve your space in the class here:
Stay tuned for the November 3 session on Alien!
The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.
Check the Scarecrow calendars for the Tuesday night horror flicks during October and November.
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.