"The Hunger," a stylishly suicidal update on the vampire genre, opens with a virtuoso demonstration of pictorial skill orchestrated by director Tony Scott, whose older brother Ridley also brought a dazzling sense of imagery to features after a successful career in British commercials and shorts.

The movie gets off to a running start on parallel narrative tracks. On one hand, something is going violently wrong with a rhesus monkey crucial to the researches of a gerontology clinic supervised by Susan Sarandon. On the other, a bizarrely predatory couple played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie polish off a kinky, ominous night on the town by suddenly killing a pair of punk victims picked up earlier at a disco.

This initial surge of dynamism keeps "The Hunger," which opens today at area theaters, in diminishing but intriguing momentum for perhaps 45 minutes. Scott's flair for evocative composition and editing is reinforced with particularly brilliant effect by the makeup artistry of Dick Smith and Carl Fullerton, commissioned to show Bowie's character, the vampire consort of Deneuve, aging from about 30 to 90 in a few hours of accelerated organic deterioration. But just as old age catches up with poor Bowie, inherent melodramatic infirmities and deficiencies gradually but decisively catch up with the scenario.

You can detect "The Hunger" decaying in the very process of concentrating on Bowie's facial transformations. Impressive and even poignant as this spectacle is up to a point, it also monopolizes attention in a way that puts the story in a permanent funereal funk.

Once the plot is allowed to deflate, there's no way to pump it back up again, although the method chosen is intended to be provocative in the extreme: Deneuve puts the make and then the bite on Sarandon, prompting a sequence of ludicrously lyrical, elevated lesbian nudging and nibbling that gets the actresses undressed and the telltale puncture marks on the heroine's mouthwatering flesh.

Even with this erotic ace-in-the-hole remaining to be played, "The Hunger" is too elegantly run down by midpoint--a victim of self-inflicted tired blood. It may be impossible to pin down the point where the film's opening spell of mystery and suspense--the tantalizing illusion that it might evolve into an unusually imaginative and sophisticated variation on traditional vampire themes--is decisively broken.

I'm not sure when audiences will begin giggling at "The Hunger," but they will, and the last thing that will protect the movie from going down in titters is its pictorial lushness. On the contrary, that also contributes to the hilarity once the willing suspension of disbelief takes a powder.

By the time the denouement leaves the picture in an utterly bewildering but undeniably hysterical shambles, "The Hunger" is right up there with "Videodrome" and "Wolfen" and "Exorcist II" in the modern pantheon of unintentional horror camp classics. Ironically, the filmmakers are even reckless enough to illustrate the disintegrating nature of their own work with a concluding production number devoted to the spectacle of bodies falling apart.

"The Hunger" falls apart so extravagantly that you're not even sure what the story was supposed to be about. The "loneliness of the long-distance vampire" theme that emerges in the first half is engulfed in bloodbaths and cadaver dust in the second half, and when the dust clears, you conclude someone must have had something all wrong, because we're evidently left with the loneliness of Park Avenue penthouse dwellers.

Unlike Adrian Lyne, the director of the vastly emptier "Flashdance," Tony Scott does not appear to be a hopeless composition freak, devoted to nothing but breathtaking backlighting, bold silhouettes and glistening reflections.

Bowie, obviously a hard sort to cast properly, has his best opportunity since "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and gives a genuinely affecting performance. There's also good, distinctive work by a juvenile actress named Beth Ehlers and by Sarandon up to the point where impossibly silly takes are demanded of her. The conspicuous weak link in the casting is Deneuve, and I doubt if the movie would have survived it even if the script matched "The Howling" for wittiness and ingenuity.

Directors have frequently used Deneuve's regal, porcelain beauty for porno-sadistic sport, notably in "Belle de Jour," where the actress' blond goddess aspects were essential to the "joke" of exposing her character's secret whorishness. "The Hunger" goes in for the same kind of fantasizing and throws in bloodsucking too, but the role of an eternal vamp demands something from Deneuve that she can't seem to supply, at least on this occasion--a convincing illusion of a predatory, corruptible nature. The sort of lustful hints that Nastassia Kinski or Rachel Ward or Barbara Carerra might give to the camera without half trying--just their way of saying "hello"--seem to be way out of Deneuve's range.

While it's obviously impossible to anticipate every situation in a vampire story that might boomerang by conking the audience smack on a collective funny bone, I think the filmmakers might have avoided one reference to Deneuve's longevity that places her 2,000 years back. Inevitably, the mind wanders to Mel Brooks and begins craving an insert in which his 2,000-Year-Old Man recollects an anecdote or two about this weird broad.

Classy as it looks, "The Hunger" is really a babe in the movie woods compared with a humorously knowing horror thriller like "The Howling" or a cheerful travesty like "Love at First Bite." If you're going to be funny on topics like werewolves or vampires, it's better to know it in advance. THE HUNGER

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Ivan Davis and Michael Thomas, from the novel by Whitley Strieber; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; music composed by Michel Rubini and Denny Jaeger; edited by Pamela Power; produced by Richard A. Shepherd. Distributed by MGM/UA Entertainment Co. This film is rated R. THE CAST Miriam . . . . Catherine Deneuve John . . . . David Bowie Sarah Roberts . . . . Susan Sarandon Tom Haver . . . . Cliff De Young