Vampires, My Friend, Vampires: “The Lost Boys” (1987)
You might wonder why I’ve chosen Joel Schumacher’s 1987 horror-comedy cult classic, The Lost Boys, as the second cinematic work to explore in our dreampunk film column, but what you might not recall, if you haven’t seen this gem in a while, is that the entire production seems to exist in a parallel universe situated just ever so slightly to the left of reality. The entire film could actually be interpreted as the fantasy of an adolescent boy with an overactive imagination, raised on a steady diet of horror comics and B-movies. It is what happens when Peter Pan meets 1980s America.
What many people probably don’t realize about The Lost Boys is that it’s kind of genius. And not just in an ironic, hipster, 1980s nostalgia kind of way. Besides the mullets and um “fashion” on display here and the fact that the mother eventually gets a job in a now-legendary place known as a home video rental shop, the time and place of the 80s isn’t what makes the film special. In fact, the inexplicable things that people thought looked good back then only add to the film’s surreal atmosphere today. The opening montage sets the stage beautifully. A newly single mother, Lucy, played by the always-divine Dianne Wiest, is driving her sons, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) to their grandfather’s house, where all three of them will now be living. We are in a deeply bizarre town that has been dubbed “the murder capital of the world.” There is a beach bestrewn with youth both rebellious and disaffected, shots of these oh-so-80s teens interspersed with shots of the boardwalk, a perpetually-running carnival, and xeroxed photos of children and teens who have gone missing. The jangly music and the cuts seem to have been an inspiration for True Blood‘s opening credits, and like that sequence, this one perfectly introduces us to an extremely unique, vampire-riddled world.
It’s rare to find a teen movie with such a carefully constructed universe and such a practically masterful control of tone. Everything from the strange graffiti that greets our protagonists to the intrinsically odd feel of the carnival setting to the “Missing” posters to the grandfather’s house–which is full of dead, taxidermied animals in various, distressing poses–adds to The Lost Boys‘ dreamlike atmosphere. In a world like this, it seems natural that there would be a motorcycle gang of teens with 80s power hair descending upon helpless people, ripping the roofs off their cars and draining them dry. A comic book shop run by two young, thuggish brothers with overly husky voices (one of whom is played by The Other Corey…Feldman, that is), whose Dickensian surname is Frog and who go by the first names, Edgar and Allan, respectively (get it?), and who have made it their mission to hunt vampires? Of course! A comic book in that shop that explains in specific detail all of the film’s vampire metaphysics and exactly how to kill them? Yes! By the time the Evil Vampire Gang Leader, David, played by Kiefer Sutherland glamours Michael into thinking the Chinese food they are consuming is actually made up of live maggots and worms–a truly creepy scene–we, as an audience, are so completely immersed in the film’s audaciously off-kilter world that we can accept pretty much anything.
What I really like about these vampires is that they may be one-note villains, but they really love using their powers, and screenwriters Janice Fischer and James Jeremias and director Schumacher take advantage of these powers, presenting many vampire tricks that most other vampire stories seem to eliminate or downplay–for example, they sleep upside down from the ceiling like bats, and they can fly, along with some other magical/mind-control abilities. And many of these scenes are presented with a genuinely surreal visual style that remains impressive to this day. The effects are often very simple, yet they are also extremely effective. Examples include the scene in which all of the gang members are hanging onto the bridge, underneath the train, and then each one plummets, one at a time into the thick cloud of fog floating beneath them; the scene in which Michael wakes up to find himself floating on the ceiling and then being sucked out the window; and the extremely stylized vampire attack scenes. The Lost Boys may not be classic arthouse cinema, per se, but it is often brilliant pop art. At times, it feels like an early example of the graphic-novel-brought-to-life film genre that has been popular in recent years, with a nice layer of meta woven into the film itself due to the horror comic that serves as Sam, Edgar, and Allan’s guidebook of sorts in fighting the vampire menace. This aspect gives the film a boy’s-own-adventure element, as well–complete with water guns full of holy water!–that hearkens back to Hardy Boys type stuff and connects it to other 80s classics such as The Goonies that depict believable kids having unbelievable adventures.
This is also, ironically, why the film as it is, isn’t perfect. The film was originally intended to be about young kids fighting similarly child vampires. As the title indicates, it was meant as a dark twist on Peter Pan, which explains the focus on flight, mayhem, and the scene in which David tells Michael that they can be young forever together, like the Lost Boys in Never Never Land. In order to appeal to an older audience, however, Schumacher decided to age the characters to teenagers, though the younger brother and Frog brothers still act like kids. That way, he could retain the boys’ adventure aspect while also having liberal doses of teen sex appeal for an older audience. This, however, serves to muddy the film’s central metaphor. Is it now about wanting to avoid adulthood and stay young forever, or a metaphor for a young man going through puberty? That’s not to say that it can’t necessarily be both, but Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland in particular were 21 when they played these parts. Therefore, Michael looks kind of old to only now be experiencing the effects of puberty, and Kiefer looks too old to be offering him the chance to remain a boy for eternity.
That’s why I feel the film works best now when one doesn’t think too hard about its metaphor and subtext–besides the homoerotic subtext, which is actually rather prominent, with David/Kiefer very unsubtly attempting to seduce Michael from start to finish, toying with him, sensually beckoning to him, promising him a life of carefree abandon and eternal youth–but instead focuses on its really rather remarkable worldbuilding, often beautiful visuals, and truly imaginative, playful twists on vampire mythology. There is also surprising legitimacy to two of the performances that serve to ground the film. The first is Corey Haim, who manages to make Sam a very believable kid–lonely, a bit out of his element since having his life uprooted, confused by the changes in his world, his mom, and particularly in his big brother (there’s also a bit of a homoerotic undercurrent between the two of them). The second is Dianne Wiest, who despite having a rather thankless role, is such a phenomenal actress that she manages to imbue Lucy with verisimilitude. Like her sons, Lucy is also still trying to find her bearings, and a bit hesitant to do so, but at the same time demonstrates surprising strength and a sense of humor about her situation. Wiest makes an underwritten character feel that much more real, which is a sizable accomplishment.
The Lost Boys not be a classically great film, but it is nevertheless great and has what might be one of the most wonderful final lines ever written for a film–one which is not only funny but pays off the entire film quite beautifully and adds yet another layer of demented brilliance to the bizarre universe that The Lost Boys spent its previous 95 minutes cultivating. Less of a coherent story and more of a teenage dream of rebellion utilizing the sort of sensationalized monsters that used to run rampant throughout Victorian penny dreadfuls, and referencing one of fairy land’s most enduring figures, The Lost Boys is dreampunk through and through.
This article first appeared, in slightly altered form, on Rob Will Review.