[Horror Queers] 'The Hunger' and Its Notorious Lesbian Sex Scene - Bloody Disgusting
Connect with us

Editorials

[Horror Queers] ‘The Hunger’ and Its Notorious Lesbian Sex Scene

Published

on

Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.

***SPOILERS & NSFW video clips for The Hunger (and Piranha 3D) to follow.***

Synopsis for The Hunger: Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie) are an elegant couple with a dark secret: they are vampires. Feeding on human blood, Miriam has lived for over 2000 years. She gave her lover the gift of eternal life and together they hunt. But John begins aging rapidly, he seeks the help of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). Miriam is immediately drawn to Sarah, desiring her as her next immortal companion…

Queer Aspect: Miriam and Sarah get it on.

Trace

I’m actually quite excited to discuss this film if only because it’s the first film we’ve done that neither one of us has seen! I must say that The Hunger is not at all what I expected it to be, and I really think that’s because of the consensus that it’s “the lesbian vampire movie” from the ‘80s. In fact, the lesbianism doesn’t even factor into the majority of the film! It’s only really present for in the last act and while I’m sure the lesbian sex scene gave teenage boys of the ‘80s masturbatory material for months, it didn’t really stick out as being as gratuitous or tasteless as I had been led to believe. I had just always heard The Hunger was a schlocky, over-the-top lesbian vampire erotica film and that is not at all what it is. So count me as a fan of this weird but beautiful film.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Tony Scott’s (RIP) directing style. His rapid-style editing and his affinity for lots of blues and oranges just never struck me as, well, good. You can see him experimenting with those design choices in The Hunger (especially in the editing), but since this is only his second feature (his first was filmed 12 years prior to this one) the film feels somewhat, dare I say, subdued?

What I love about the film is that it does flip the vampire mythos on its head (the word “vampire” is never actually used in the film). I know I’m talking a lot about what I expected walking into this movie, but it played such a huge part in how I received it! I expected a vampire movie from the early ‘80s that featured David Bowie to feature David Bowie. And he “dies” 30 minutes in! All hail Queen Catherine Deneuve though, because this bitch is in it to win it.

Anyway, let’s start with what is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of The Hunger: the use of a lesbian (or at least a sexually fluid) woman as a predator. I can’t imagine that played well among lesbians in 1983. The queer community had so much going against it back then that Miriam, however unintentional it must have been, could easily be read as predatory because she is a lesbian. Not helping matters is that this film was released at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis. So imagine sitting in the theater watching a film in which a non-straight woman gives another woman a blood disease after a night of sexual intercourse. Again, I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the film to be insensitive, but it had to come across that way at the time, right?

Now let’s talk about that sex scene. I’m sure at the time it was particularly graphic. It’s not even particularly scandalous (though I love how the seduction starts with Sarandon’s Sarah spilling sherry on her white blouse), but it is somewhat tame by today’s standards. There’s not even any cunnilingus! It’s just lots of kissing on the mouth and on the inner elbow. Setting the scene to “The Flower Duet” from the opera “Lakmé” is an interesting choice of music, but I guess that’s just what straight men like to listen to when they fantasize about lesbians getting it on? It can’t just be a coincidence that that same piece of music was also used by Alexandre Aja during Piranha 3D’s also infamous lesbian underwater ballet sequence, right?

What are your thoughts on the film Joe? Were you as enamored by the film as I was? Do you agree that the film could have been read as insensitive by the queer community? And what is it with straight men’s fascination with lesbian sex scenes set to opera music?

Also, here are some other Fun Facts I found in my research:

  • Sarandon’s mother received hate mail over the sex scene!
  • Sarah was meant to be drunk during the seduction scene but Sarandon said that you wouldn’t have to be drunk to be seduced by Catherine Deneuve so she made Tony Scott change it.

Joe

Oh Trace, only you could have worked Piranha 3D, opera and cunnilingus into a discussion about a lesbian vampire film.

I’m totally on board with you, though. I was completely enthralled by The Hunger, which proved to be an unexpected gem. I realized in hindsight that I was only aware of the film by (online) reputation, so five minutes in I had to completely revise my expectations of what the film was and what it was aiming to do.

I knew that the film was held up as a canonical lesbian horror text, but I was surprised at how little physical romance there is in the film. I distinctly thought that it was a kinky threesome situation between Deneuve, Bowie and Sarandon, which the opening scene at the nightclub supports. In reality, however, Miriam’s relationships with both John and Sarah are more sensual than sensational. I can’t help but wonder if The Hunger has gained a reputation among lesbians because of its normalized treatment of sexual fluidity: Miriam and Sarah’s mutual attraction is treated so matter of factly that I found it refreshing in 2018 (a year when Love, Simon is making waves as the first openly gay teen rom-com!). Considering the sex scene alone, I would think that the film owes its canonization less to male masturbatory fantasy and more to the lack of (semi-positive) lady-on-lady love stories. It’s hard to tell how much of this is revisionist history through our modern glasses, though. I imagine this was received as a bit of an artsy oddity back in the day.

For me, first and foremost, The Hunger is a sumptuous, gothic treatise on who you want to grow old with. (The correct answer, obviously, is Deneuve because she is fabulously regal and gorgeous in this film). What I loved most is how contained the story is: there’s an elegant simplicity to the conclusion of Miriam and John’s relationship and her attempt to start anew with Sarah and then the film is literally over. It’s a perfect vehicle for a burgeoning stylistic director like Scott to experiment and hone his craft on thanks to its relatively straightforward nature. And that’s why the film works.

It is hilarious that Sarandon – or anyone associated with the film – would be targeted by haters. Obviously, in the 1980s homosexuality was treated completely different, particularly in popular culture, but that sex scene is so tame that it’s basically a perfume commercial with a bit more lip action. As for the AIDS angle, this is a little too early to really resonate, but it certainly anticipates those fears and simultaneously reinforces the narrow-minded point of view about sexually deviant and dangerous lesbians and bisexuals, which is a pretty consistent trope in horror films and thrillers going back decades, from Rebecca (1940) to The Haunting (1963).

I would likely argue that Miriam is more bisexual since she clearly had a long relationship with John, as evidenced by the flashbacks. The Hunger, however, takes deliberate care to avoid labels; in the same way that “vampire” is never uttered, Miriam’s interest in Sarah seems to be founded equally in sexual attraction (that soft lighting!) and expertise (Sarah is constantly presented in a professional/academic setting like the hospital or at a book signing). Simply put: I think it’s reductive to categorize Miriam as either a predatory lesbian or an evil bisexual when the reality is that she’s more of a vampires opportunist whose predatory nature falls outside gender norms. An inner elbow is an inner elbow, regardless of who it belongs to, right?

Trace, to what extent do you think The Hunger impacted future depictions of transgressive or sexually fluid vampires? And do you think that there’s another reason why this film resonates so strongly with the LGBT+ community?

Trace

Surely it has impacted depictions of queer characters since its release though, right? What’s funny to me is that even today, lesbians are so often portrayed as hyper-masculine in film (often as the butt of a joke), but here is this weirdo vampire movie from 1983 portraying a feminine queer woman. Of course, I realize that masculine lesbians do exist but they don’t make up 100% of the queer female population (just like effeminate men don’t make up 100% of queer men). The fact that there was this sort of queer female representation in a studio film in 1983 is more unbelievable to me than anything else and I’m so happy that the film exists because of that.

Does this film resonate so strongly with the LGBT community though? Again, the only thing I’ve heard about it was that it’s the lesbian vampire movie with Susan Sarandon. If anything I feel like it’s not mentioned enough in conversation when serious discussions of queer cinema are taking place, which is a real shame. I was of the impression that it was perceived to be a joke of a film. That may just be me being out of the loop and not fully paying attention to conversations that brought up the film though.

The Hunger Catherine Deneuve

It’s interesting that you mention its reputation among lesbians, because I came across this article that reinforces that the sex scene is not very realistic (or sexy) at all. Obviously, one opinion is not representative of an entire group of people, but I found it to be an interesting take since I’m not coming at it from the same background since I’m not attracted to women. I agree with you on how the film normalizes sexual fluidity, but let me play devil’s advocate: Does that fact that she is a predatory creature give her sexual fluidity a negative context? Granted, the sexual fluidity of Sarandon’s character would seem to contradict any negative reading of the film in regards to queerness since she is not a predator, but I can certainly see why someone would pose that argument.

I definitely don’t want to dig too much into labelling Miriam’s sexuality, as we ran into some issues with that in our Insidious: Chapter 2 piece, but if I had to, I suppose she would be pansexual, right? I’d just like to believe she would fuck anything with legs. Hell, she’d probably also fuck something without legs, as long as it was human. She doesn’t discriminate and for that to be present in a mainstream 1980s horror film is mind-boggling. Of course, I was born in 1989 so maybe it wasn’t mind-boggling back then, but it seems like it would be, right?

The Hunger wasn’t very well-received when it came out (Roger Ebert called it an “agonizingly bad vampire film”). So many reviews I’ve read have criticized the film’s lack of a narrative, but there’s totally enough of a narrative to sustain a film here! It’s just on a much smaller scale. There isn’t much at stake in the film other than the choice that Sarah makes, but what I find interesting is that her choice to die is rendered null and void with the final scene. I read that the studio demanded this ending so I’d be very interested to know what the original ending was.

I also think the parallel between queerness and the fear of aging is important to note. It has been said that queer people live their romantic lives at least 10 years behind their straight peers because they had to hide their sexual orientation for so long. So whereas many straight people start dating in their teens, queer people wouldn’t start until their early to mid-20s (and sometimes even later for an age group like the baby boomers). This also delays their emotional maturity, which is why you often see a lot of older gay men acting like 20-year-olds in the club. They’re living their 20s in their 30s, 40s or 50s. This creates a fear of aging that I think the film draws from rather wonderfully. Everyone has a fear of aging, but not everyone has to hide who they are for years of their life. I doubt this was in the filmmakers’ minds when The Hunger was in production, but I certainly read that from it. I do want to point out that this is a generalization that doesn’t apply to all members of the queer community, as coming out during teenage years was/is also a possible, if less common, occurrence (though it is certainly more common now than it was in the ’50s).

What are your thoughts on that Joe? And do you think it is time for a critical reevaluation of the film? Time has been kind to it, after all.

Joe

The aging question is a great one and not something that I had considered. Obviously one of the most attractive elements of a vampire narrative is the concept of everlasting life and the costs associated with it. This is hyper-exaggerated in The Hunger. Unlike other vampire films that use the idea of never dying as a springboard to explore love and loss, The Hunger’s minuscule plot is entirely devoted to aging; the characters in the film are literally consumed by this idea. Hell, that’s Bowie’s entire arc in a nutshell! (Also: quick shout out to the makeup department for the scenes when he’s sitting in Sarah’s waiting room aging rapidly).

David Bowie The Hunger

One of my big initial criticisms of the film was actually that Miriam’s seduction of Sarah feels far too reckless and impulsive. John is barely in his coffin before the wine comes out and the silk blouses come off, but if we contextualize it within that “queer living a delayed romantic life”, Trace, this is Miriam’s rebound after a few centuries of being with the same person and she’s hungry to get back out on the market. Yes, I’m aware that that’s a pretty flippant interpretation of what happens considering how careful Scott is not to overly eroticize the seduction, but Miriam essentially puts one lover in a box and immediately grabs another like it’s last call at the club before the house lights come on.

As for labelling, it really is a tricky issue. One of the elements I’ve enjoyed most about writing these editorials with you is when readers take us to task for using the wrong term, or educating us on how to capture the nuance of different orientations and genders. I’ve become far more reticent to make broad, sweeping declarations about characters unless they self-identify in the film.

What’s interesting to me about The Hunger, then, is how fixated reviewers became on that single, non-explicit sex scene. 1983 is definitely a causal factor here, but there’s undeniably a discomfort and a lack of understanding evident in the way critics talked about the film when it was released.

One reason for this may be that in the 80s (and even 90s and early 2000s) film reviewing was almost exclusively the domain of (heterosexual) men. These were the people shaping the film’s reception and its criticism, so their obsession with the lesbian elements, and particularly the sex scene, is crazy because it is ultimately not for them!

If there’s one thing I learned from the sole heterosexual man in my Gender Studies course in university, it’s that depictions of LGBT+ sex in media, and most particularly lesbian sex, does not exist to satisfy straight male fantasies. The Hunger may have been made by a heterosexual male director and straight male audiences may have found the sex scene titillating, but at the end of the day it’s actually not about them. Back in 1983, however, the voices of lesbian critics and viewers would have been much harder to find because there weren’t social media or lesbian-oriented websites available.

So where does that leave The Hunger? For me, this is a case of people needing to watch the actual film as opposed to reputation (which I’ll cop to being guilty of before this piece). The film is stunningly gorgeous, features interesting performances and I think the parsed down narrative really works in conjunction with Scott’s focus on tone and evocative imagery. Not only is it a canonical queer text, it’s a fascinating deviation from traditional vampire narratives and I really, really enjoyed it. I hope more people check out The Hunger because it deserves to be discussed more in both the horror and LGBT+ communities.

Trace, what’s your final takeaway on The Hunger? And where are we headed to next?

Trace

My final takeaway is that The Hunger is great! It’s got a reputation for being a lot less classy than it actually is, and that’s a real shame. I do hope that this article makes our readers want to check it out though, especially since you can stream it on Amazon for so cheap.

As for where we are headed next, I’m glad you asked! I know we have discussed this privately but I’ll use this space to inform our readers. Starting in May, we’re going to add another Horror Queers article each month, so instead of doing one a month we will do two. One article will still focus on a horror film with queer elements and we will discuss themes, public reception, etc., but the other film may not have queer elements at all! We will use a less restrictive set of guidelines to choose the second film of each month. So it could be something with a high camp factor. It could be a film that has just so happened to amass a large queer following over the years. Or it could just be a horror film that one of us loves. So yeah, no real rules there. It’s just something for us to talk about. And I am thrilled to choose the first one: I Know What You Did Last Summer! Stay tuned, readers…

The Hunger available to stream on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99.
On the next issue of Horror Queers: We look at the 1997 slasher film I Know What You Did Last Summer and a certain iconic chase scene…
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles:

An avid horror fan, especially of the slasher variety, Trace has earned Bachelor's Degrees in Public Relations and Radio/TV/Film from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys spending time with his husband and their adorable dog Coach McGuirk. He's also a pretty decent cook.


AROUND THE WEB


Click to comment