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Brewster (2016) Review of The Hunger, both the 1981 novel and the 1983 film, with discussion of the Faustian elements in the story

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Brewster (2016) Review of The Hunger, both the 1981 novel and the 1983 film, with discussion of the Faustian elements in the story
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  Review of The Hunger , both the 1981 novel and the 1983 film, with a discussion of the Faustian elements in the story Bradley H. Brewster  The tale of The Hunger  comes from a 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber and a cinematic rendition of the novel in the cult classic 1983 film by the same name directed by  Tony Scott (brother of director Ridley Scott, famous for directing  Blade Runner  and  Alien ). The film stars Catherine Deneuve (iconic French actress, well-known for her frail, pale beauty and her films dealing with deviant sexuality, particularly Roman Polanski’s 1965  Repulsion  and Luis Buñuel’s 1967 sadomasochistic surrealist film  Belle de Jour ), David Bowie (iconic pop musician famous in part for his ability to reinvent himself every few years into a seemingly entirely new musical persona [Pareles 2016]), and Susan Sarandon (actress perhaps most famous for her roles in  Bull Durham  [1988], Thelma & Louise  [1991], and  Dead Man Walking  [1995]). Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, one of the last of an ancient species that cannot die unless they are killed or don’t feed once a week. Bowie plays John Blaylock, a human “transformed” into her kind some 170 years or so ago by Miriam for companionship. Sarandon plays Sarah Roberts, a sleep researcher who, through research with nonhuman primates, is discovering a connection between sleep and longevity. Her research attracts the attention of Miriam (and later John) because it is essential to her kind to have to Sleep shortly after their once-a-week feeding in order for their feeding to be e !  ective in revitalizing them and sustaining their vampiric immortality. Image 1: The celluloid laid out in columns creates a visual of the dominant colors in the film. (Cinematic Fixations) Bradley H. Brewster (2016; revised 2019) Review of ‘The Hunger,’ page of 18   The opening scene, in a monochromatic color scheme of midnight blue and black recurrent throughout the film (see Image 1), features what is considered the first goth rock band, Bauhaus, on stage in a dark underground dance club playing their song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which frequently repeats the chant “Undead, undead, undead.” (Visit https://youtu.be/UZiPhX-SZ88 to watch the opening 3 minutes of the film.) This opening aptly sets the modern goth atmospherics for the rest of the film. The Hunger would seem to rightly declare itself the first modern goth film. Not surprising then that it holds something of a cult classic status in goth subculture. Obviously the casting is marvelous (What could be better for a stylish, early 80s vampire flick saturated in a modern goth aesthetic than Bowie and Deneuve?), even if the acting can leave a little something to be desired at times. The soundtrack is spot on (Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” obviously, but also the use of Franz Schubert’s “Trio in E-Flat”). As for story, it doesn’t disappoint. It has some srcinal spins on the vampire theme (e.g., they don’t have fangs, they are an ancient alien race, the vital role that Sleep plays). But the film does have some gaps in story, particularly in terms of background–both the history between Mirium and John and the history of this alien species on Earth. This is where the novel comes in. It really fills in the gaps in background that the film only suggests in passing. When I started reading Whitley Strieber’s novel, I was very impressed. The writing, the characters, the story, the historical flashbacks, the imagination and creativity, the unique spin on the vampire theme. It seemed to be all there and I was engrossed. I would be flooded with thoughts after reading a chapter, drawing interesting analogies between things in the novel and things in life. This, I thought, was actual literature. I was delighted. But about midway through chapter four the first of two things happened, which was a really tacky sexual scene. It was just silly and unnecessary. Total cheese. While my excitement about this novel was consequently deflated slightly, I was still hopeful and thought maybe this is just a single, anomalous blemish. I read on. And, indeed, the rest of chapter four continued to engage and impress me. Then the second thing happened: a rapid decline in all those qualities that had so impressed me earlier in this novel. The writing ceased to impress me. I became less engrossed in the characters and the story, as they began to seem more flat and contrived. The flood of interesting thoughts and analogies stimulated by the first fours chapters dried up entirely. The main thought I had from chapter five onward was how could something so impressive for nearly 100 pages so suddenly become mediocre for the remaining 150 pages. With that nagging thought in mind, I often found myself imagining that Bradley H. Brewster (2016; revised 2019) Review of ‘The Hunger,’ page of 28  the author had spent a year crafting the first four chapters and three weeks just banging out the rest of the chapters to meet a publishing deadline, as it seemed to me that the author surely must have invested much less thought in the writing, the story, the characters, the flashbacks, etc., in these later chapters. I loved the first few chapters, but I was thoroughly disappointed with the rest of the novel. Hence, my recommendation is to watch the 1983 feature film first. Then at least read the first four or five chapters of the novel. You can safely skip the remaining chapters, if you wish, without any loss, but the first four or five are not only well-written and excellent, but also fill in aspects of the story, especially the backstory, that the movie treatment, for better or worse, out of artistic choice or necessity, skimped on. One last aspect of this tale’s rendering of the vampire theme that I think is especially worthy of discussion is the Faustian myth I see in it. Renditions of the Faustian myth would seem to have to have a few constant elements. I will briefly identify and discuss these elements in reference to the story of The Hunger . In doing so, many of the most important and interesting aspects of the story are brought out, confirming the value–the utility and validity–of a Faustian reading of the story–not as “the” reading of the story, but as one important and useful reading of it.  A FAUST FIGURE. Obviously, any Faustian myth needs a Faust figure. The character from The Hunger  who seems the most Faustian figure is John Blaylock.  A DEVIL FIGURE. A second necessary ingredient would seem to be a devil figure. In The Hunger , this would be Miriam, who o !  ers her chosen lovers eternal life and eternal love. Also, Miriam, somewhat like the devil, is from another world. She isn’t human. She is of another species.  THE TRADE-OFF. One constant element of any rendition of the Faustian myth would seem to be the deal itself, that is, some trade-o  !   or dilemma . For John, Miriam o !  ers not only perpetual life, but eternal love—together with Miriam “forever… forever and ever,” as John says in the film. But the trade-o !   is that he has to go from being a human being  to  feeding on human beings —once every seven days. That is, he has to betray his own kind. “He had come to terms with his cannibal life, accepting it as the price for immortality” (Strieber 1981:59). Miriam, belonging to another species, has no problem feeding on humans,  just as (many) humans have no problem feeding on other species (e.g., cows, pigs, chickens). But, at least in the novel, John, having once been human himself, doesn’t take any pleasure in the act of killing human beings (though there is the intense pleasure of renewed vitality he experiences when he drinks their lifeblood), Bradley H. Brewster (2016; revised 2019) Review of ‘The Hunger,’ page of 38  whereas Miriam finds some thrill in the hunt and kill, as illustrated in the novel after they both feed upon two young lovers: “It was just beautiful ,” she said. “He was so strong.”  John smiled. He husbanded his own exhilaration. Despite his years at it, the kill itself never pleased him. He was not excited by the actual act, as was Miriam. “Yours went well, I hope.” It was a question. “The usual.” She was staring at him, her eyes twinkling like those of a pretty doll. “I had such a nice time. He thought he was being raped by a girl.” She giggled. “I think he died in ecstasy.” She stretched, luxurious with postprandial ease. “How did Kaye die?” He supposed the question was her way of giving him support, to show interest, but he would rather forget the ugly little act and concentrate on the joy that was its reward. (Strieber 1981:5)  THE CATCH. So while there is a trade-o !  , it is one that, for eternal life and eternal love, he is more or less perfectly okay with. But suddenly there is a problem. John is aging, and rapidly so. John doesn’t understand. But Miriam does. There’s something she hasn’t told John. Every few hundred years or so, Miriam has to take a new lover because there’s a glitch in the “transformation.” While Miriam, the srcinal, has walked the earth for ages, those she “transforms” only stay young a few hundred years (further explanation about this in a minute). And so every few hundred years, she has to find a new companion to keep her company in her eternity. Here, then, is another element of the Faustian myth: “the catch”—that is, some glitch in the system, some fine print in the contract, something unstated in the deal, some backfire. Whatever precise form it takes, “the catch” always seems to involve, at least from the point of view of the Faust figure, some unanticipated consequence .  This element, “the catch,” seems inherent in the Faustian myth because when you make a “deal with the devil,” you’re making a deal with “the father of lies,” with someone untrustworthy. Miriam’s needs are (1) to feed weekly and (2) to have a companion to avoid eternal loneliness. And her needs override telling her lovers the full truth: Bradley H. Brewster (2016; revised 2019) Review of ‘The Hunger,’ page of 48  She was lonely and human beings gave her the love that pets give. She sought companionship, some warmth, the appearance of home. She rejected her tears, her shame at what she had done to him [i.e., not told him the full truth]. After all, did she not also deserve some love. (Strieber 1981:64) For each of her lovers throughout the centuries, there eventually comes a time when their feeding doesn’t fully satiate “the hunger.” So, driven by “the hunger,” they’re compelled to feed more and more frequently, to stave o !   “the hunger,” but each time the feeding satiates and revitalizes less, and meanwhile the aging rapidly increases. But here’s part of “the catch” in the tale of The Hunger . Technically, Miriam told all of her lover-companions the truth: They will live forever and they will be with her forever. But what she didn’t tell them was that someday, eventually, they will start aging again, only very rapidly, and become so old, weak, and decrepit that they can barely move—but still technically alive, still conscious, forever. And then, true to her word that they will be with her forever, Miriam locks them in large trunks and keeps them all in her attic, alive and with her forever. Though John begs for her to kill him, she refuses to do so, true to her word that he will live forever and be with her forever. Indeed, because she knows the fate that awaits blissfully ignorant John, she has, unknown to him, long had a trunk in the attic waiting for him and has already started grooming a local young teen, Alice Cavender, to replace  John as her next lover-companion. Her thoughts went to little Alice Cavender, whom she would transform. When John’s winter actually came—–many years from now—–Alice would be rising to summer. As he withered she would flower, and Miriam’s love would slip from one to the next with none of the agonizing sense of loss she had experienced in the past. (Strieber 1981:13-14) So Miriam keeps her promise in the most technical sense, though without telling each of her lover-companions the full truth. That’s the Faustian twist, or what I have called “the catch.” I think it is rather well-done in The Hunger .  THE MOTIVE. Of course, no one who is fulfilled or contented, no one without a critical problem, would have the motive to make a deal with the devil. Hence, one element integral to the Faustian myth is for some character to have an unfulfilled desire or critical problem, which is (or which creates) the condition for Bradley H. Brewster (2016; revised 2019) Review of ‘The Hunger,’ page of 58
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