[written by author, Ruth Merriam]
The Hunger – Filling the emptiness inside
When The Hunger previewed in 1983, it was met with mixed reviews – most of them negative. As both an art film and a horror film, it left audiences and critics in a state of uncertainty. What, exactly, was this film trying to say? Was it a vampire film? Soft porn? A languid exercise in cinematography?
The Hunger is a film about hunger in its many forms. The darkly sensual and sexual imagery evokes longing, addiction, and gratification. Oral gratification is prevalent throughout whether it be in the form of smoking, kissing, implied oral sex, or the actual vampiric feeding.
The film is hazy and dark much like the inner workings of the psyche. Winds blow through rooms and corridors, windows are filled with billowing sheer curtains or stark blinds, and even during daylight hours there is a sense of twilight blue overall. Light and dark speak of hidden things and eternal quietude.
There are several elements of the typical vampire movie that are noticeable for their absence in The Hunger. There are no fangs – the bloodletting is accomplished with the use of a small blade hidden inside ankh necklaces. There is no discussion of good or evil, no question of heaven or hell, and with one notable exception, no innocent victims. Each of the main characters is passionately driven by hungers or desires. The story line moves with imagery and music more than dialogue and key plot points are tied to particular pieces of music, from the opening scene of a dance club where Bauhaus is performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead, to a character being introduced through the playing of instruments, to a glorious seduction scene accompanied by the character of Miriam playing a piece of music on a piano, to the poignancy of laying a loved one to rest whilst a Renaissance chorale piece plays in the background.
While the ankh is perhaps an ironic symbol in this instance, it ties back to the hazy beginnings of the main character, Miriam Blaylock (played by the ethereal Catherine Deneuve). We see her feeding in her earliest incarnation – again, the sexual imagery is overt. Everlasting life gives instant death.
The character of Miriam is well named:
- Miriam (Hebrew: מִרְיָם, Modern Miryam Tiberian Miryām ; meaning either “(bitterly) wished for child,” “bitterness,” “rebellious,” or “lifted up”; or perhaps originally from Egyptian mry “beloved” or mr “love” or the derived ancient Egyptian name Meritamen “Merit-Amun,” “beloved of Amun”
At Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because:
- of the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman whom he had married: for he had married a Cushite woman
Miriam and Aaron question Moses’ exclusive religious authority, since they consider themselves to also have been prophets..
- ‘They said, ‘Was it only to Moses that God spoke? Did he not speak to us as well?
God hears and calls all three to the door of the tabernacle. When they arrive, God states to them that Moses has a much greater authority than Miriam and Aaron; indeed, He chooses to speak to Moses face to face, rather than merely through dreams.
In anger, God subsequently visits a punishment on Miriam, giving her tzaraath turning her “white as snow.” According to the rules concerning tzaraath, Miriam must then live outside of the camp, in isolation, only being allowed back when Moses intercedes with God on her behalf. Nevertheless, God insists that she still be punished for seven days. (Numbers 12:10-14) [i]
Miriam seems to believe in a god, or at least she believes in prayer. Religion and morality are not the central themes of this film, nor do the characters look outside themselves for justification.
More than the need for blood, Miriam longs for love everlasting. Unfortunately, the gift of immortality which she bestows upon her “beloveds” is not the same immortality which she endures. Her beloveds remain ageless for a period of time lasting into centuries, then over the course of a week or so those years catch up to them. John Blaylock, her husband/partner (played by David Bowie) begins this decline into decrepitude shortly after the film begins.
While seeking help from a gerentologist and blood specialist named Sarah Roberts (played by Susan Sarandon), John finds himself sitting in a waiting room for a few hours. . .which is enough time for him to age to a point of near-infirmity.
Sarah is, herself, driven by an obsession with discovering the mechanics of aging. She is at once deeply involved in her research and oddly removed from the physical results of her experiments. She’s a chain smoker. Her pursuit of knowledge is obsessive. When John leaves the research center after having aged so dramatically, Sarah tracks him down to his home where she encounters Miriam, who tells her that John has left the country.
In truth, John has joined the ranks of Miriam’s previous lovers. Their decaying bodies are in boxes in the attic and Miriam carries John up to them while weeping over her loss. She’s told him that she prayed that this would not be his end, but inevitably, this is where all who love her wind up. She asks the lover who preceded John to care for him, and to be kind.
Again, music does what words could never do. The piece that’s playing during this ascent is Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri. The climb from the darkened staircase into an attic of shadows and light, doves flying and cooing amongst white curtains blown by breezes, brings to mind an angelic ascent into heaven. In this case, however, the price of Miriam’s love is eternal suffering.
English translation of the original Latin hymn:
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified in Thy saying, and clear when Thou art judged.
Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Turn Thy face from my sins: and put out all my misdeeds.
Make me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence: and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
O give me the comfort of Thy help again: and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.
Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked: and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, Thou that art the God of my health: and my tongue shall sing of Thy righteousness.
Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord: and my mouth shall shew Thy praise.
For Thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee: but Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.
O be favourable and gracious unto Sion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations: then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.[ii]
Time is the enemy here. Time and the betrayal of trust. The “forever and ever” that Miriam promises carries with it a dreadful end – the body will decay, but the mind does not. There is no release for those Miriam loves, and she tells John, “In the earth, in rotting wood, in eternal darkness, we can see, think, feel.” John’s passion for Miriam turns into lust for revenge as his vitality withers. As for Miriam, she cannot bear to be alone and so must fill the gaping void in her heart immediately. She chooses Sarah to be her next beloved although Sarah has no idea of what’s being done to her.
The theme of addiction is strongly portrayed during Sarah’s transformation into a blood-feeder. After realizing that Miriam is the cause of the sudden onset of her “blood disorder,” she winds up back at Miriam’s home where she collapses. She goes through this physical metamorphosis in what seems to be the throes of extreme drug withdrawal, all the while fighting against the “hunger” that Miriam has told her she cannot deny. When the hunger finally takes over her, she kills her boyfriend and feeds on him, thus severing her last shred of humanity and pushing her own drives and desires to the forefront.
However . . . Sarah will only live on her own terms and tries to kill herself with the ankh blade during a passionate kiss with Miriam. She uses the last of her strength to hold Miriam to her while her blood gushes from her mouth and into Miriam’s mouth. Miriam must bring Sarah’s body up to the attic to join the others, but she’s mentally distracted and distraught. Her mind goes back to her beginnings as she tastes her own blood.
It is perhaps a case of too much, too soon . . . and John’s rage and desire for revenge has mobilized the denizens of the attic. They’ve lain in wait for Miriam and act upon their own senses of betrayal by attacking her. She frantically tells them that she loves them all, but their rotting ears don’t hear or they simply no longer care. Miriam falls to the ground floor of the house while her lovers watch and gloat.
The last of their essence leaves them as Miriam becomes as they have been – dusty corpse-like things trapped in a box. In the end, Sarah’s passion and hunger keep her alive while Miriam becomes the victim of her own desires. The hunger has come full cycle and begins again.
We all fight against the urges that come up from our deepest places lest they consume us and those we love. Sometimes, we lose those fights.
All images are screenshots from the film The Hunger ©1983 MGM Studios.