Part of the Network Awesome tribute to David Bowie.
I've got some good news and some bad news for the crowd that just can't stand Twilight and its associated cultural maelstrom.
The bad news is that vampires aren't going anywhere. We've had the vampire myth in one form or another for ages, so something about it must speak to an ingrained notion in our psyche. Five hundred years from now, you'll be able to read the latest story about techno-vampires, or vampires from Mars, or what have you. Get used to it.
It's not so bad, though. Because the good news is that, aside from the basic trope of blood-sucking, vampires change with the times. There have been vampires who aren't harmed by sunlight, vampires who can fly, vampires who can shape-shift and vampires who are magicians. Vampires can be gothic, or emo, or punk. They're refined aristocrats or savage gutter trash, darkly charismatic or revoltingly inhuman.
What they really are, aside from all those cosmetic differences, are reflections of the anxieties and fears of their contemporary societies. Compare the most recognizable vampire story -- Bram Stoker's Dracula -- to the aforementioned teenage novel run amok. A lot of vampire stories present Dracula as being motivated by a kind of disturbed love, but Stoker's original count is a creature concerned with ownership and possession. When he catches his three Brides trying to seduce Jonathan Harker, he's not sexually jealous -- he's furious that they're attempting to take his property, screaming "This man is mine!" in a manner that suggest nothing more erotic than a business transaction.
One could argue that the Count's obsession with contracts and property is a reflection of the times in which Dracula was written -- set at a time when modern capitalism was starting to take its form, it reflected a concern with dehumanization through the reduction of a human to a commodity. I won't suggest that Dracula himself represents the modern corporation -- the term "blood-sucking" being literal in this case -- but it's certainly in the subtext.
Getting to The Hunger. Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are that story's vampires, as the opening sequence (in which they seduce and consume a couple of concertgoers to the strains of Bauhaus) makes clear. They seem to possess few powers, although they're conveniently unaffected by sunlight. After their opening kills, as they shower together, Bowie dreamily tells Deneuve that they'll be together "forever and ever."
Immortality is probably the most appealing part of the vampire mythos -- who wouldn't want to live forever, right? Deneuve and Bowie have been together since the 18th century, and it's clear that Bowie is expecting to spend eternity in a kind of connubial murderous bliss with Deneuve.
Then he sees a wrinkle, and freaks out.
It turns out that Deneuve is a different kind of vampire from Bowie -- she's the original, he's something of a pale copy. He ages rapidly, from an apparent age of thirty to a state of decrepitude in a manner of days. He attempts to see a specialist on premature aging, played by Susan Sarandon, but is cast off as a crazy person. After he murders a young student of Deneuve's for sustenance, his body finally fails him, at which point he finds out the worst part of his crumbling bid for eternal youth: he can age, but he can't die.
We talk about the idea of something being worse than death, but The Hunger says that the really horrible thing is getting old. It's so horrible that one will murder to prevent it, and that it might be the only thing worth murdering for. Deneuve's opening kill is almost glamorous, but when she puts Bowie's body in a coffin, surrounded by the final resting places of her (still alive!) former lovers, she commits a truly monstrous act in The Hunger's eyes.
Here's where the fact that this movie is made in the 1980s becomes important. This is an era in which plastic surgery for purely cosmetic reasons starts to come into its own, and where people began to really commit to things like diets and regular exercise. Twenty-five-year-old Madonna released her first album the same year The Hunger came out, and one only needs to look at 53-year-old Madonna to figure that she long ago decided to put off aging as long as possible. David Bowie's casting is particularly important here, because he was never supposed to get old. The sight of his actual physical aging is arresting. He's not property, but his immortality is a lie. The Thin White Duke will crumble just like the rest of us.
So, aforementioned Twilight hater, take heart. The modern vampire may be a sparkly abomination designed to be nothing more than a lonely writer's conception of a super-awesome boyfriend who will love her author/audience surrogate unreservedly. Wait a few years, and maybe the circle will turn once again. At this rate, we might even get another Bowie movie.
by Joe DeMartino
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