David Bowie never looked cooler in a movie than he did in The Hunger. A stylish vampire movie directed by Tony Scott, The Hunger downplays its supernatural elements and is really about aging, vanity and specifically how the futile quest to stay young can lead to desperate acts. “The hunger,” in the context of the movie, is hunger for blood, but that’s a stand-in for the a hunger for the sexual potency of youth.
Bowie gets the most screen time for the first 45 minutes or so of the movie. He’s a hundreds-years old vampiric concubine of an even older vampire played by Catherine Deneuve. These vampires don’t turn into bats and don’t have pointy teeth. They drink blood to stay young and extend their lives. How long is a pivotal plot point.
After a sexy and scary opening scene in which Deneuve and Bowie lure two nightclub patrons to their house anticipating sex (but instead serving as the vampires’ dinner), Bowie’s character begins aging…quickly. The movie is structured such that Bowie’s character fades out while a third character, played by Susan Sarandon fades in. Everything about the movie, including this structure, underscores the Bowie-esque notion that nothing lasts forever. The quest for eternal youth is illusory.
This leads me to the great line that doesn’t actually get said in the movie. At one point, Bowie’s character plaintively says to Deneuve’s, “I thought you said forever?” He conjures up an empty promise from the distant past. Deneuve responds, “More or less.”
Sadly, that’s not the actual dialogue. The actual dialogue is:
John Blaylock (Bowie): You said forever. Never ending. Do you remember?
Miriam Blaylock (Deneuve): Everyday.
John Blaylock: Forever you said.
Miriam Blaylock: Forever and ever.
John Blaylock: Never growing old. Do you? Remember?
Miriam Blaylock: Stop it.
John Blaylock: Forever young.
Miriam Blaylock: Stop it.
I like my version better, but the movie has virtually no sense of humor so I guess my version would have been misplaced.
Going back to that extended opening scene, director Tony Scott constructs an intricate sequence of events that mix the opening credits with a music video-like performance by the band Bauhaus in the club where Bowie and Deneuve are doing their hunting. The scenes serves to introduce the two vampires who are so cool that they are wearing sunglasses in the dark. We keep hearing the performance even after the characters leave the club, with flashbacks to Bauhaus between scenes in the vampires’ home.
The whole movie has a rock and roll sensibility. The opening sequence establishes that. I don’t think it was random that Bowie was cast in this role. Seeing Bowie age is prophetic: the movie was released at the very peak of Bowie’s celebrity, when he was 36 years old. At one point he says, “Yesterday I was 30” before insisting, “I’m a young man.” Although we’re never told exactly how old the character is, we know— and he knows— that he’s hundreds of years old. But I can tell you that I often think that I was 30 yesterday.
Bowie had a sense that he himself was on the clock, and that whatever was working for him today would not last. A great many of his songs contemplate aging, death and the passage of time. He released the song, “Never Get Old” in 2003, but his character could have expressed its sentiments in this movie.
We don’t get to hear that song in this movie, but we do hear a Bowie song at one point. There’s a scene in which the song “Funtime” serves as the soundtrack. “Funtime” is from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and while it features Iggy on lead vocals, Bowie sings backup, plays multiple instruments and co-wrote the song. It’s kind of an in-joke for those who know it because it is the one song Bowie had anything to do with that mentions Dracula, though it isn’t actually about vampires.
But that brings me back to Bauhaus— their song actually is about vampires. It’s, “Bella Lugosi’s Dead.” Throughout the song, the word, “undead” is repeated. Like the movie as a whole, this detail straddles the border between being cool and cheesy, but it also serves the practical purpose of telling us that the main characters are in fact vampires, which explains their subsequent behavior. No need for fangs or bats.
This movie almost didn’t need to be a vampire movie at all. With a few minor adjustments, the movie could have been about a dominant partner discarding and replacing an aging lover with someone younger and more beautiful. As with all good science fiction and fantasy, the dilemmas in this movie are relatable. But I think the characters being vampires underscores the idea that vanity has made them monstrous. At one point, Bowie’s character kills a young girl to get one last hit of blood, muttering to himself (decidedly not to a higher power), “forgive me.” Deneuve’s character, fully aware of what would eventually happen to Bowie’s, acts like she’s the aggrieved party when Bowie presses the “I thought you said forever” idea. She not only is quick to replace Bowie for a new lover (Sarandon), but begins the search for a replacement before Bowie is even out of the picture. But even once she’s done with him, she can’t entirely release him from her thrall. In the context of the movie, she literally can’t— Bowie’s character is doomed to spend eternity in a coffin, next to Deneuve’s previous aged-out lovers, forever rotting but never dying (evocative of “their endless, tragic lives” from “The Supermen”). But here again, a supernatural phenomena is simply being used to represent the all-too human trait of narcissists who continue to dominate a partner after a relationship’s expiration date.
The quest for youth, the vanity— it’s all an extreme manifestation of being self-centered, which, as the movie illustrates is ultimately unsatisfying. The characters are left, in the end, only with themselves. This fate is so terrifying to the ultra-cool Deneuve that she can’t wait a day by herself before finding a new lover. She doesn’t want to be alone, but in the end she lacks true empathy for her companions so she really is alone.
Good use of Bowie?
The Hunger makes excellent use of Bowie. Though Bowie did not come up with the idea for the movie (it was based on a book), it hits on many themes Bowie explores in his music. Vanity, style, isolation, bisexuality are all in this movie as well as in several Bowie songs. Bowie returned again and again to the passage of time, the concept of eternity and the sense of the ticking clock. Several songs make the distinction between a very long period of time and eternity. Bowie wrote, “The Wedding,” for his own wedding to Iman, which repeats the line, “angel for life,” but also includes the line, “she’s not mine for eternity” (think about how many love songs don’t make that distinction). “Golden Years” and “Cat People” both mention, “1,000 years,” which is conspicuous in that the term appears in two different Bowie songs, underscoring that Bowie was consciously evoking a long, but not infinite period of time.
Bowie often raises the idea of how people spend their time when they know it is about to run out. “Battle cries and Champaign, just in time for sunrise” in “Aladdin Sane,” describes a soldier’s party before a battle. “Five Years” literally sets the clock on the end of the world. The entirety of “Time” is more or less about this theme, perhaps most directly expressed in the lines, “Time, in quaaludes and red wine, Demanding Billy Dolls, And other friends of mine, Take your time.” The suggestion is that Billy Dolls (based on Bill Murcia, the then-recently deceased drummer for the New York Dolls) wasted his time living too fast. This is another of Bowie’s themes— fast living “pretty things” whose youth and beauty eventually run out (“The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”). Several of Bowie’s later songs suggest regret about misspent youth (think, “you’re the great mistake I never made,” from “Survive,” or, from “Thursday’s Child,” “All of my life I’ve tried so hard, Doing my best with what I had, Nothing much happened all the same”). It’s not beyond the realm of imagination that Bowie had this movie in mind when he wrote the lines from “Blackstar,” “something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a meter and stepped aside, Somebody else took his place.” This is what essentially happens as Sarandon’s character replaces Bowie’s in the movie.
Since Bowie had already changed up his style several times by 1983 in an attempt to stay ahead of the cultural curve, it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that he (and perhaps the casting director) were conscious that in the years following we would be seeing Bowie age and transform, and that this version of Bowie was indeed on the clock. Bowie would live another 33 years, and though we didn’t see him in real life reach the age of his fictional character, we essentially did see the 1983 version of Bowie zombify, get shelved away in a box and replaced by the next thing.
The movie resembles a Bowie song in other ways, too. It’s highly metaphorical. It uses bizarre characters, imbued with superhuman powers as exaggerated stand-ins for regular people experiencing similar, though smaller-scale situations. It works on different levels and maintains multiple meanings.
Add to all this, Tony Scott even managed to work a Bowie-related song (“Fun Time”) into the soundtrack, and its hard to imagine a better use of Bowie in a movie.
This is the third movie that I recently watched (or re-watched) for Bowie and noticed that Willem DaFoe also appears. He’s the star of The Last Temptation of Christ, has a small role in Basquiat and, before he was famous, also briefly appears in The Hunger.
This one will get the highest rating, four out of four Bowies. The overall quality of some of the previous movies mentioned in this series did not hinge on Bowie’s part, but this one did for sure. It’s close to a movie version of a Bowie song, or several Bowie songs. Almost like a massive music video (with less focus on the music part).
The movie is not perfect. The end is somewhat confusing and relies on the kind of supernatural elements and special effects that the rest of the movie strived hard to avoid (still, no bats or fangs). But even in this respect the movie is somewhat similar to a Bowie song that seems to neatly be about one thing before veering off in an internally inconsistent direction, leaving more for the listener (viewer, in this case) to interpret.
It’s hard for me to imagine how I’d react to the movie with no previously knowledge of Bowie, but since I have previous knowledge of Bowie I think I can appreciate it as one of his best.
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤👨🎤👩🏿🎤 Four Bowie movies reviewed thus far
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Hunger (1983)
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤👨🎤 Three Bowie movies
The Prestige (2006)
The Snowman (1982)
Shot! The Psycho-spiritual mantra of Rock (2017)
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤 Two Bowie movies
Into the Night (1985)
👩🏻🎤 One Bowie movies
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Hooked to the Silver Screen is my series of commentaries about movies in which Bowie appeared. The name of the series comes from a line in the song, “Life on Mars.”