On January 10, the world lost a musical legend as David Bowie died of cancer at the age of 69. He left behind a legacy of music and film that will continue to entertain for generations to come. His music speaks for itself and has wide appeal. However, his acting credits are a little more sporadic and, perhaps, a more acquired taste. Within the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genre, he left his mark several times.
In 1976, David Bowie would bring to life a most unique character as Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, based on the novel by Walter Tevis. It was not a commercial success but would grow in cult status over the years. It was an overly ambitious film, somewhat incomplete with its lack of continuity. But it has stood the test of time, due in large part to David Bowie’s performance. He would take on various roles in the years that followed before entering the world of horror with The Hunger (1983).
The film is a very loose adaptation of the novel by Whitley Strieber. It is a unique take on the vampire lore without ever mentioning the word. Our film opens at a New York night club as we see Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion) with her companion John (David Bowie). From the very beginning, this a stylish film that many would consider an art house effort. We see Miriam and John stalking their prey while Bauhaus is playing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. They eventually take a couple back to their home where they are seduced and killed. However, there are no vampire fangs here. Their throats are slashed using an Ankh pendant, hinting at an Egyptian past for Miriam.
Miriam and John are a wealthy couple who teach music. But there is a darkness behind their comfort. John begins to realize that Miriam’s promise of ever-lasting life only applied to her. After hundreds of years, John begins to age rapidly. He seeks out the help of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon, Rocky Horror Picture Show), a gerontologist who is studying rapid aging in primates. John flees the clinic before she can find out more. Once back at home, he tries to stop the aging by feeding on a music student but it fails to help. Miriam returns home to find John near death. Despite his pleas to end his life, she places him in a coffin in the attic, alongside others, saying there is no release.
The rest of the movie really centers on Miriam courting Sarah to become her next companion. Yet, when Sarah is turned, she repels at the thought of living forever, feeling more like an addict in search of the next hit to keep her alive. Unfortunately, this is where the movie eventually suffers. Despite establishing a lore that Miriam is eternal and cannot die while her companions must suffer, all of that is changed in the final act. This was due to the studio requesting that the ending be rewritten to an open ending and leaving the possibility for sequels. Susan Sarandon has expressed regret at this decision and I agree. It changes too much and, ultimately, leaves the filmgoer confused as to what really happened.
Bowie’s performance was somewhat limited but stellar all the same. The makeup work done to age him was amazing. Bowie would actually learn how to play the cello for the movie. He was proud of the finished film but was concerned that it was too bloody at times. For a vampire film, it really isn’t excessively horrific, especially considering that it never features vampire fangs. Director Tony Scott presented us with a very stylized look at the world of vampires, one that would reach cult status amongst the Goth crowd in future years. I believe it has to be an inspiration of some sort for Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), a film I actually enjoyed just a little bit more.
The Hunger is currently available on Blu-ray. Check out the trailer on YouTube and I think you’ll get a good idea of what this movie has to offer. I recommend it and appreciate it for offering something a little different on a sub-genre that could occasionally use some fresh blood. Be sure to listen to episode 438 of the Dead Media podcast for Desmond and Chris’ review of the film, then tune in to the upcoming episode 361 of the B Movie Cast to hear what Vince and the gang think about it.
Bowie would never really do another horror film. He would appear in several episodes of the short-lived television series version of The Hunger, a non-related effort to capitalize on the name. But he would give the world of fantasy a go in 1986. Next time, I’ll take a look at the often much-maligned Labyrinth.