Celebrating The Hunger, the Most ’80s Lesbian Vampire Film of All Time

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Celebrating The Hunger, the Most ’80s Lesbian Vampire Film of All Time

The recent success of Top Gun: Maverick has led to a long-awaited reappraisal of the works of Tony Scott. The late great king of action excess was key in defining the ‘80s blockbuster and paving the way for the high-concept stylistic frenzy that dominated the form. His work is all about momentum—the unstoppable movement of the camera, the giddy vibrancy of oversaturated colors and music video-friendly volatility. From Top Gun onwards, there’s a remarkable consistency in his filmography, which makes his debut film, 1983’s The Hunger, all the more notable. How did the ear’s action titan kick things off with a languid lesbian vampire drama?

Based on the novel by Whitley Strieber (best known as the guy who said he was abducted by aliens), The Hunger follows Miriam Blaylock, played by the ever-alluring Catherine Deneuve. She’s a former Egyptian princess who has collected a series of lovers over the centuries to keep her company in eternity. Unbeknownst to her current beau, John (David Bowie), her promise of eternal youth and beauty is more temporary than he hoped for, and as he ages rapidly into decrepitude, Miriam focuses her attention on a new potential lover, Sarah (Susan Sarandon). 

The lesbian vampire is a trope with as much historical and cultural resonance as the entirety of modern vampire fiction. Dracula may define the undead figure, but Bram Stoker took plenty of inspiration from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a seductive tale of an older vampire mistress who preys upon a naïve woman seemingly addicted to her charms. The real-life figure of Countess Elizabeth Bathory became a cautionary tale of near-mythic thrall as the stories of her preying on young women were elevated to monstrous levels. As Dracula became Hollywood’s new favorite horror monster in the ’30s, Universal dabbled in the implications of lesbian vampire attraction with 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. The eponymous countess, played by Gloria Holden, sets her sights on Lili, a beautiful young woman she invites to her home and promises to care for. The Countess’ attraction to women, which reaches its climax in a scene where she has Lili pose in the nude, was centered as the ultimate threat in the film’s marketing. The tagline screamed, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

By the time the Italian horror scene exploded and Hammer delved further into the salaciousness of the genre, the lesbian vampire had come to exemplify a familiar bind: Something to desire and scold at the same time. So much of vampire fiction focuses on the notion of the bloodsucking creature as a figure of transgression, one who reveals our innermost desires but should be avoided for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Queer attraction is not the taboo it once was (although it has never fully stopped being the target of political discrimination), but it is still oppositional, at least in the context of stifling societal expectations. If Dracula was feared because he preyed upon the women of London, another woman doing so is even more terrifying to the men in charge. What greater force of faux-moral panic than a lesbian vampire? 

With The Hunger, Miriam’s queerness is remarkably matter-of-fact, even if her sex scene with Sarah is shot with the curtain-flapping subtlety of a Madonna music video. It’s not vilified or seen as a sign of her deviance. That she is non-discriminating in terms of whom she traps and dooms to eternal pain is almost progressive! Sarah doesn’t experience gay panic, nor is her desire scorned. This is a film of a specific time, still of the lasciviousness of the post-disco era and unaware of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic that decimated and further demonized the LGBTQ+ community across the rest of the decade. Miriam and Sarah’s romance is certainly salacious through Scott’s camera, but so is her time with John. When your cast is this hot, how could it not be? 

For all the criticism that The Hunger is more style than substance, it keenly captures one aspect of vampirism, and indeed humanity, that is often taken for granted: Our desperate fear of aging. Every single one of us is cursed to watch ourselves grow frailer as time passes, and if we stop to think about that for too long, it hurts. John is forced to watch decades of aging happen in mere days, a helpless spectator in his own body as his hair falls out, wrinkles engulf his stunning face, and he becomes unable to support his own form. It’s the equivalent of an addict being forced to go cold turkey. One can become dependent on youth and beauty.

Nowadays, the lesbian vampire trope has earned a few more layers of depth beyond sex and fear. In literature, The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez features a gay Black woman who escapes slavery and finds new purpose with a vampire brothel owner. Even as HBO’s True Blood descended into parodic madness, it allowed its ensemble to explore their sexuality without judgment (and featured one of the most underrated queer vampires in fiction in the form of Pam). Various retellings of Carmilla, including a 2014 YouTube series, brought the character into the modern day and empowered her sexuality rather than scorned it. While it was unfortunately canceled after one season, Netflix’s First Kill let its queer teen protagonists explore their desire with earnestness. Often, this is just another context to explore a love story in—no different than the Twilight stories in that regard. 

At a time when bad-faith culture war discourse has forced LGBTQ+ people into the spotlight of shame, and legislation is filed across the world to all but criminalize queerness, the vampires of our past can reveal much about our cultural attitudes. One of the great powers of vampire fiction is in how it acts as a lens for us to view contemporary concerns of all kinds. Queer people, particularly women, have faced the contradictory trap of being simultaneously hated and fetishized, fuel for decades of the lesbian vampire trope. 

Though we now see greater nuances to a previously black-and-white notion, that doesn’t negate much of the positive fascination queer audiences found in such stories. If the world thinks you’re monstrous, something to be feared, then isn’t there a kind of lustrous freedom in embracing that? It’s not hard to root for Carmilla, especially when everyone else in her story is such a drip. Queer people have always found solace in narratives of beastly outsiders, literal or otherwise. Consider the horror stories of Clive Barker for a beloved example of that idea taken to its most bloodstained conclusion.

The Hunger is as close as the lesbian vampire genre ever came to ambivalence in terms of sexuality. Miriam is a monster whose desires aren’t positioned as a symptom of her evil, and her queerness is a sign of her intense capacity for love that goes beyond humanity’s understanding. She’s a villain who happens to be queer, not a queer villain. That feels kind of revolutionary considering the film is turning 40. And yet, it really only could have been made in that year, sandwiched between the dying embers of ‘70s excess and the dual dangers of AIDS and Reaganism. Sarah may reject Miriam’s dark gift, but by the film’s conclusion, she has embraced a queer (potentially polyamorous) life. Desire and death are not inextricably entwined. It is a cycle that can be concluded. 

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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