Pricking a finger for a bloodsoaked love letter to a cult classic.
The mid-80’s was something of a halcyon era for the vampire film.
From Charley Brewster’s neighbour troubles in the Rear Window homage, Fright Night, to Katherine Bigelow’s western-tinged and toothless – in a good way – Near Dark. A number of less-revered, though no less entertaining, films also secured releases, including My Best Friend is a Vampire, starring Robert Sean Leonard (remember him?) and Once Bitten, a film Jim Carrey still dines out on.
But, if there’s one film that really encapsulates this most effervescent of decades, the cinematic vampire legacy and, almost effortless, cool, it’s Robo Vampire.
OK, it’s clearly Joel Schumacher‘s, The Lost Boys, though Robo Vampire runs it pretty close.
My first experience of The Lost Boys came one evening in early 1987 while being looked after for the evening by my grandfather. As I recall, Entertainment USA, presented by the later-disgraced Jonathan King was on television, and I vaguely remember him (King, not my grandfather) standing in front of a huge roller coaster, warbling away about a new vampire film. I wasn’t really paying a great deal of attention ― being far too busy trying to eek a few extra minutes in the living room beyond my parent-appointed bedtime ― until I heard the squeal of a saxophone, turned toward the television screen to see the incredibly beautiful Jami Gertz, and then heard a low, rumbling voice announce:
“Michael and Sam have just moved to Santa Carla, California. They’re about to discover its secret.”
I watched, absolutely transfixed as I was introduced for the very first time to The Lost Boys, the Frog Brothers, Michael (Jason Patric), Sam, Star, Lucy, Laddie, a cover of People Are Strange – that to my mind is better than the original – Kiefer Sutherland‘s vampiric face leering into the camera (which shocked the hell out of me), and that amazing title card with the letters zipping one after the other onto the screen to form the title, The Lost Boys.
What had I just seen? Why was I terrified and completely enthralled? Why was my heart racing? Who the hell was that weird oily dude with the saxophone?! I was sold.
Nobody touches the second shelf, but me!
Sadly, I didn’t get to watch The Lost Boys for another year or two. I was too young to see the film at the cinema: these were the days before the quick transfer from big screen to small screen was standard practice. Also, I was a bit of a chicken. I was intrigued by horror films, but I wasn’t overly keen to experience one. Yet.
Nevertheless, when The Lost Boys did eventually find its way onto video, I could no longer resist. Besides, Kiefer Sutherland looked ridiculously cool on the cover; rebellious, defiant, malevolent. What treasures were stowed within the VHS box, I wondered.
Watching the The Lost Boys for the first time, I experienced something that has only happened to me a few times during my film-watching ‘career’; the feeling that it couldn’t possibly get any better than this.
I luxuriated in the experience. The music, the dialogue, the danger and mysterious allure of Kiefer Sutherland’s gang of miscreants. I was also hopelessly in love with Jami Gertz. It was scary, funny, and achingly cool to a teenage boy from the ‘dark and dangerous’ suburbs of Surrey. I genuinely didn’t want it to end, and, when it inevitably did, I thought of nothing else but watching the film again. I wanted to be a ‘Lost Boy’ more than I needed air in my lungs.
Full disclosure: I rented the film a lot. I once lost my bus pass not long after watching it for probably the tenth time. I was completely smitten with The Lost Boys and the daft idea of actually being a vampire – a creature I knew to be fictional, but, hey, I was still idealistic enough to kinda believe in them. Don’t judge me. Anyway, I hung upside-down on the bunk bed, the bus pass dropped out of my pocket and somehow slipped down the side of the bed. After what seemed like weeks of searching and finger pointing, the wantaway bus pass was discovered and the game was up. My family have never let me live it down. They still bring it up on occasion to great guffaws from all.
Anyway, now you know.
One big, happy family.
The story of The Lost Boys is a relatively simple one: a mother moves her sons to a coastal Californian town to live with her hippy father. The eldest son meets a girl and her rebellious biker friends, the youngest meets a couple of comic book store clerk conspiracy theorists. The bikers are vampires, the comic book clerks vampire hunters. Fight!
Though the premise is not particularly unique, the The Lost Boys is something of a departure from its ancestral forbears, Nosferatu, Tod Browning’s Dracula, and Chrisopher Lee’s incarnation of the famous vampiric Count, via its use of pop culture that weaves its way in-and-out of the film. In many ways, it’s the thread that binds everything together. These vampires aren’t of the Dracula variety, stale, musty, sleeping in coffins and afraid of garlic. These are eternal teenagers, trapped forever in beautiful bodies, straight out of MTV’s wardrobe and design, hip to the latest trends, and they can do whatever the hell they want. It’s a very desirable proposition – and one that Joel Schumacher was only too aware of.
Early versions of the script featured far younger main characters. The vampires were in their early teens, Star was a boy, and the Frog Brothers ‘chubby 8 year-old Cub Scouts’. This Goonies-esque approach might have worked on its own merits, but Schumacher insisted on raising the age of all the young characters to older teenagers, thereby ensuring the film’s appeal to that particular demographic. It was a smart move.
The Lost Boys plays like a mix of a John Hughes film and The Goonies, but adds a palpable element of danger. The safe route would have been to employ comical, even camp vampires, but Schumacher cleverly ensured that ― despite the fun to be had watching Sam and the Frog Brothers sounding each other out, Lucy and Max’s awkward courtship, or Grandpa slapping his face with Windex in preparation for an evening with the good widow Johnson ― when the moment arrives for David and the gang to ‘vamp out’ (a phrase popularised by the film and used liberally in Joss Whedon’s own take on vampire lore, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) the fun stops, and we see the gang for what they really are: ruthless killers who show no mercy as they tear at throats and peel off skin to feast on the viscera underneath. And they do not sparkle.
“Don’t kill anyone until we get back to you!”
The cast are uniformly excellent. At the time of filming most of the young actors were largely unknown, but there’s no weak link, perhaps in part due to a lack of dialogue between the group, particularly the vampire gang, meaning they simply had to look good, or menacing. Dianne Wiest, fresh from an Oscar win for Hannah and her Sisters, took the role of the matriarch, Lucy Emerson, while Edward Herrman played her potential suitor, Max.
Despite the dearth of dialogue, each of the vampires receives a very memorable demise. As Sam and the Frog Brothers take them down one-by-one, each death is more spectacular than the last, but none more so than Dwayne’s electrocution and a pay-off line worthy of Schwarzenegger: “Death by stereo!”
Ostensibly, at the head of the vampire table, though, is David. I was instantly fascinated with the anti-heroic, cool-as-ice, Billy Idol-mulleted leader of the vampire gang. Perhaps because I’ve always felt him a somewhat lonesome, tragic figure. Watching the film again, there are a couple of brief pauses where David seems almost lost in the crowd, particularly during the famous ‘maggot and worms’ cave scene with Michael. In fact, there are striking similarities between David and Ace Merrill, the antagonist from Stand By Me. Aside from the obvious visual aspect, both characters illicit an air of imposed imprisonment and sexual repression. Here are two alphas, surrounded by other males, with seemingly no room for women; Star being an exception, employed almost as a house mother to keep the boys in check. And even her relationship with David appears to be one of a familial rather than sexual nature. It’s not implied that either character is gay, but their frustration (sexual or otherwise) are explicitly manifested in persistent violent physical action, both consequential and lethal, rushing into exchanges with potential foes as if they are in some way looking to be put out of their existential misery.
The Emersons, meanwhile, are a family whose close bond, forged by divorce from an off-screen husband, is tested by David’s, and particularly Star’s, seduction of Michael. The elder Emerson is caught between the responsibility of his unwanted new role as de facto head of the family and simply wishing to behave like a typical teenager and make friends, in a strange and alien town.
Lucy, clearly bruised from her previous experience with men, and seeking a hint of kindness from someone of a similar age, quickly falls for the charms of video store owner, Max, an upwardly-mobile yuppie who offers her the security of a job and the potential for romance, despite his unavailability during daylight hours.
Sam, the youngest Emerson, who falls in with comic book store clerks The Frog Brothers, notes with alarm the changes in his brother and the new man in his mother’s life. But it’s Grandpa, played with withering grouchiness by Barnard Hughes, who sees everything; a squint here, a frown there, a throwaway comment (“That’s as close to town as I like to get.”) that takes on greater meaning in hindsight. Grandpa is ultimately the real hero of the film, and he has all the best lines, including the closing zinger: “One thing about Santa Clara I never could stomach. All the damn vampires!”
“How much do you think we should charge them for this?”
It would be impossible to talk about the The Lost Boys and not mention the soundtrack. I’ve owned this little beauty on every format available since I first picked it up in Our Price in the late 80’s. Yes, it’s dated and one or two of the songs sit on the wrong side of the cheese board, but I love it all the same. From the timeless blast of INXS and Jimmy Barnes’ cover of Good Times, to Echo and the Bunnymen’s superior rendition of The Doors’ People Are Strange, it’s packed with great tunes, all topped off with the synthesised, atmospheric splendour of Gerard McMann’s Cry Little Sister – a superb, evocative song, written specially for the film.
Viewing The Lost Boys through a different lens than the one I peered through as an impressionable mid-teen, it now appears to me to be a story about the loss of innocence, about growing up, and about moving on with one’s life. As Elaine Showalter perfectly sums up in her book, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle: ‘the film brilliantly portrays vampirism as a metaphor for the kind of mythic male bonding that resists growing up, commitment, especially marriage.’
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to fixate on what one might view as high-camp; big hair, shoulder pads and other 80’s accoutrements, when compared to, say, Near Dark. But to my teenage eyes, The Lost Boys will forever be the film that brought to my close attention the winning combination of horror and comedy, with a liberal dose of cool. It was also a jumping off point to numerous other films starring actors that appeared in The Lost Boys. Without it, I would never have discovered the late, lamented, Corey Haim‘s wonderful performance in Lucas, At Close Range with Kiefer Sutherland, nor returned to the Friday the 13th films. It is for this reason, and many others that, decades later, The Lost Boys remains one of my absolute favourite films and will always hold a very special place in my heart.
It’s still as clear as day: the moment the Warner Bros. logo first appears on screen, with a child’s voice intoning, ‘Cry little sister, come to your brother’. A synthetic drum pattern, like a beating heart, and a point-of-view shot of something flying over water after dark. There’s mischievous laughter, a boardwalk in the distance, lit up against the night, and then the title card appears: The Lost Boys. From that moment on, for me, things would never be the same again.
Postscript: Last summer, I watched The Lost Boys for the first time in several years with my wife and a mutual friend. What prompted the viewing was an article I’d read regarding a drinking game, to be played while watching the film. The premise was simple, take a drink every time someone says,”Michael”.
Michael is mentioned 118 times.