For the first beat of his first theatrical feature, Tony Scott made no little choices. When the little brother of Blade Runner and Alien mastermind Ridley Scott made the leap from television commercials to cinema with 1983's The Hunger, he opened that film with one of the most in-your-face gestures of uncut style to be found anywhere in English-language cinema in the 1980s. As the sounds of bleak Goth rock begin to ramp up on the soundtrack, the film cuts from total blackness to Peter Murpy, lead singer of the band Bauhaus, separated from the camera by the metal wall of a cage, his hair and make-up pushed into an extreme of craziness plainly influenced by German Expressionist silent film. Between the off-kilter music and the utterly startling visuals, the ground has already fallen out from beneath our feet, and the film is less than one second old.

What follows, as we start to piece together enough details to have any clue what the hell is going on, is pretty easy to mentally partition as "just" a music video, and that's enough to find some solid ground to cling to until the movie begins in earnest, but it still happens to be a singularly alarming music video, nonetheless, cutting between high-contrast images that are all in their different ways equally unnerving, occasionally introducing us to figures that we can uncertainly assume are to be our protagonists, while "Bela Lugosi's Dead" rages on the speakers. Oh, and just for fun, the cutting of the images is in not the remotest degree tied to the rhythm of the song, just to keep as and calm reality at the furthest possible remove from each other.

Two things announce themselves from this opening: one is that Scott is going to be awfully interested in how he can wallop us along the head with style, and the other is that he's really good at it. As it turns out, The Hunger isn't nearly empty enough to be merely an exercise in style, though it is probably fair to accuse it of being primarily an exercise in style. Luckily, The Hunger is a horror movie, adapted by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas from Whitley Strieber's novel, and that's the one place where relying on an overabundance of aesthetic to create mood in the absence of any clear story or character reason for doing anything particularly stylised is an undeniable strength. Lord knows, The Hunger has atmosphere to spare, thanks to Scott's cavalcade of elaborately Gothic interior spaces (abetted by the inestimable contributions of up-and-coming cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, and production designer Brian Morris, who never quite had the future career that Goldblatt did, though it's worth mentioning that the two men had between them three Oscar nominations in the future), and like so many Continental horror films in the 15 years preceding it, there's more than one point where the film coasts on the harrowing sublimity of an image, divorced from any context but its own sense of the macabre, to paper over some very unfortunate oddities in its character behavior.

The film doles out information erratically, and never entirely uses all the words that would be necessary to lay out a 100% clear plot synopsis, but basically: vampires. Specifically, the unspeakably ancient vampire Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve), and her consort, John (David Bowie), a great cellist centuries before, when Miriam seduced him with the promise of eternal life. And not just any eternal life: eternal life sharing a bed with at-her-prime Catherine Deneuve. None of that is necessarily clear at the start, though it's implied, what with the ritual murder and blood drinking of a young couple they pick up at a disco one night.

John, we'll find out, is aging lately, and he and Miriam are exploring the work of blood scientist Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), studying the effect of aging in primates, and coming awfully close to cracking the secrets to something that she's much too professional to refer to as "eternal youth". Hoping to find a cure for his condition, John approaches her at her clinic, but she presumes him to be a crank; by the time he ages half a lifetime sitting in her waiting room, it's already starting to be too late for the vampire who learns only belatedly that Miriam's promise of eternal life has one hell of a catch.

With John out of the way, Miriam needs a new partner, and Sarah proves to be awfully convenient, hanging around and feeling guilty about not helping John, and all. Accordingly, Miriam begins to seduce the human woman into her erotic hell of vampiric suffering, and thus learns why of all people, the last one you should infect with your poison blood is one of the world's leading gerontologists.

That is, anyway, a reasonably cleaned up version of a story that is expressed in the most abstract way for what is, ultimately, a mainstream thriller about gorgeous lady movie stars making out naked. I am of two virtually incompatible minds of all this, for there are some representational problems with The Hunger the size of a battleship. If nothing else, it's immensely hard to avoid slotting the film in with that robust company of '80s and '90s films that claim, to some degree or another, that female homosexual behavior is literally monstrous, though by putting in heterosexual sex scenes just as heightened in their artistic eroticism, the film does manage to cripple that argument somewhat. It's hard to disagree with the common sentiment among contemporary reviewers, that it was at times outlandishly gory just for the sake of it; gorier than it strictly "had" to be, certainly, even at the level of horror.

But oh my God, does it work! Not uniformly: the closer it gets to the end, the more that the balance of the film slides firmly from visually gorgeous horror (something Scott and company achieve magnificently well) to cryptic, impressionist art cinema with a genre edge (something Scott and company are generally too slick and bombastic to do without it turning arbitrary and increasingly scattered). The last scene, included despite virtually nobody involved liking it much, is especially terrible.

As a collection of moments, though, The Hunger is as good a horror film in the most pure, rarefied sense of "horror" that the '80s produced in English: the dawning terror of Miriam's attic room and what it entails, Sarah's attempt to defy Miriam, John's last-ditch attempt to feed before he becomes too decrepit, all of these are the best kind of haunting images and concepts, with image and sound combining into something truly inexplicable and uncanny. The sharp eroticism (as happens when you throw mostly nude Deneuve and Bowie at a movie, with their sophsticated European sexuality contrasting wonderfully with Sarandon's more earthy sensuality) makes that horror more piercing, not less, as is often the case in sexploitation horror; and without denying the sex its very real impact, to boot.

It's a largely sensual movie, in both senses of that word: it is about experiencing moments communicated through just about every means other than sensible character psychology. I can easily understand why somebody would find the movie accordingly hollow and annoying in its hip violence, but for horror to have this kind of impressionist impact, it must be doing something great, even if that something isn't quite in line with the film's intimations that it wants to be about human experiences of sex and longing (the "hunger" of the title"). It's one of the most viscerally impressive horror movies of the '80s, it plays the "tragic sexual vampire" card without defanging the monsters, and it's consistently gorgeous - I can't quite decide whether The Hunger is successful at being the exact film it sets out to be, but it is a very successful film of some sort, and that's close enough.