VHS Revival recalls the unique appeal of Joel Schumacher’s pop culture fairy tale
Which film or TV programme scared you the most as a child? Which did you watch at too young an age, was the one that made you run out of the room when it all became too much? There are a few strong contenders for me – The Company of Wolves, Episode 3 of Doctor Who’s ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’, Superman III and so on – but the one that takes the top spot was a film that not many would regard as a seriously scary horror, a film that proudly showcased itself partly as a comedy. It wasn’t even an ’18’. It was The Lost Boys.
I was nine years old, it was New Year’s Day, 1991 and BBC1 were showing Joel Schumacher‘s modern-day vampire flick for the first time. True, not a typical film for the family to gather round and watch, but that ended up being the case when my mum, my sister and I took our places on the sofa to watch it. I was very nervous. I had little to no experience of horror cinema up until then. I had listened with curious wonder to other children even younger than me boasting that they had watched the first A Nightmare on Elm Street. In my local video shop, I had willed myself to not even catch a glimpse at the spines of horror movies, where even the font on the sleeve of Demons unnerved me. Clearly, I was not made of stern stuff. Saying that, why should I have been? In the UK, I wasn’t even legally allowed to watch this kind of material. However, the rules regarding what was suitable and what wasn’t in the Fletcher household was a lot looser than that of a video store counter or a box office, and my sister had reassured me that this wasn’t going to be a real horror film like The Shining, or Freddy Krueger or the one with the hockey mask. No, no, no, no, no. I should be just fine. And if I wasn’t, well, I didn’t have to watch it. Hmm. Sounded like a dare, that.
My anticipation/dread for the film had been fuelled by our copy of the Radio Times for the Christmas/New Year period (this was from the time when BBC channels and commercial channels like ITV and Channel 4 had separate TV guides) where it had advertised the film with a reproduction of its original UK quad poster. It’s not as famous as the US one, where the main characters are presented in monochrome against a blood red backdrop. No, this is the one with Kiefer Sutherland‘s vampire David staring the viewer dead on with a serene, slightly sad and yet unnerving expression. To the left there was Jami Gertz’s Star, his girlfriend and a relatively innocent ‘half-vampire’. To the right there was Jason Patric’s unwitting new kid in town Michael, who falls in with David’s gang of bloodsuckers, only realising what he’s gotten himself into long after he’s drunk a bottle’s worth of vampire blood. Their faces are set against a spectacular view of a coastal amusement park at night; below them a set of unidentifiable bikers riding across the beach, above them a scary dark blue-and-black sky, with a creepy full moon included for good measure. It’s quite a sight and nowadays I’ll happily tell you that it’s my favourite film poster of all time, but back then it haunted and scared me, especially Kiefer’s drained, stark-white face. It creeped me out. The thought of actually staring this guy right back in the face by watching the film itself was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, but I was at home with my family and hey, look, it’s just a film, right?
I may have only made it two-thirds into the film, but that night’s viewing of The Lost Boys remains one of the most visceral, terrifying, yet strangely beguiling cultural experiences of my life. It shaped the way I approached/avoided horror films more than any other title in the genre. Watching it that first time, I was instantly hypnotised by the beautiful night-time visuals, the spooky score, the wild fashion, the creepiness of the merry-go-round, the lure of Santa Carla’s funfair and the wicked but attractive menace of David, the supposed head vampire. This was all in the first two minutes. I was definitely hooked, but still very wary. This was a film about vampires, after all. Vampires scared me. That whole seducing you, biting you, killing/turning you, the uncanny horror of a familiar face made monstrous with those fangs. I ridiculously hoped that The Lost Boys wouldn’t go so far as to actually show us any vampires or any killings. And to be fair, for a very long time, this does turn out to be the case. For the first hour, the murders are off screen and point-of-view shots are used to prevent us seeing the vampires in their true form…. hey, maybe it would be alright, right? Right? Again, wrong.
Before the moment when I fled from the film in terror, we are treated to a thrilling descent into teen addiction where Michael participates in reckless dares (literally hanging out underneath a train bridge), social initiations (remember, they’re only noodles) and risky romance, mirrored with a comic subplot where Michael’s younger brother Sam (Corey Haim) investigates the town’s undead problem with a pair of junior vampire slayers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), a quest that points the finger of suspicion at video shop owner Max (Edward Herrmann), who just happens to have romantic designs on Sam and Michael’s mother Lucy (Dianne Weist). Then there’s Grandpa (Barnard Hughes) whose kookiness may very well mask a true understanding of what’s going on around these parts…
Sam Emerson: Look at your reflection in the mirror. You’re a creature of the night Michael, just like out of a comic book! You’re a vampire Michael! My own brother, a goddamn, shit-sucking vampire. You wait ’till mom finds out, buddy!
This all leads to the big scene, the primal moment, the point when the film finally grew tired of considering wimpy viewers like me and went for broke. David and his fellow Lost Boys take Michael to the beach and declare that the ‘initiation’s over’, revealing their true vampire forms and tearing a gang of local party animals to pieces. The moment that David’s face emerged from the darkness and is shown, in ghoulishly queasy firelight to have fangs, distorted cheekbones and evil eyes, all twisted into a malevolent expression, remains the most I have ever been frightened by a film. That was it for me. I fled upstairs, my mum accompanying me to calm me down, while my sister continued to watch downstairs. How brave she was! I envied her so much at that point. Later, I wanted to know how the film ended, and so I was given an enthusiastic account of how it continued.
That was more enough for me. In fact, it was another three or so years before I plucked up the courage to attempt to see it again, once more with my sister (bless her, she was crucial in getting me to confront this particular fear) and the suspense I experienced whilst re-watching those first two-thirds was again ridiculous. I was in absolute knots. I knew what was coming. That face. That damn face. Coming out of the shadows, mocking my fear, grinning with pure evil. And yet, in addition to my dread, there was also another feeling brewing. I realised I was enjoying The Lost Boys. I was beginning to feel proud that I was finally staring this film back in the face (that damn face) and also remembering those other feelings I had when I first watched it – the thrill and the buzz of the night time scenes, the funny one-liners, the amazing music (yes, even – well, especially Timmy Capello) and the seductive allure of the characters’ flirtations with the dark side. However, above all else, there was fear. And when it came to that dreaded scene, it didn’t, in its own perverse way, disappoint. I was still terrified, I was still shocked. The rest of the scene, with all of its blood-letting and subliminal extreme violence (seriously, there is some really nasty gore here – we even get a quick-fire shot of a scalping), was more than strong enough to justify my original fleeing of the scene. And yet, when it was over, I felt something I didn’t expect.
I had made it through to the other side. After that I was rolling, and yet I was still worried that the film was going to pull more, unexpected, terrors out of its hat. There were indeed more scares to endure, and plenty of David’s scary visage to contend with, but nothing so intense as that earlier key scene. In fact, it now seemed apparent that I had bailed out of the film just as it had reached its scariest peak. After that, it became somewhat lighter, as Sam and his buddies tool up and start to take out the bloodsucking trash, with the resulting action resembling an R-rated The Goonies, arguably even a proto-Home Alone with its house full of booby traps. By the time the end credits rolled, with evil well and truly vanquished and even half-vampires back to normal, the dust had well and truly cleared on an epic cinematic endurance test that had lasted years.
And yet this was just the beginning. Despite bragging about my bravery, I was still not quite ready to face the film again for a while, not until I dared to ask for a very nice looking widescreen special edition of it on VHS. That copy of The Lost Boys is easily (seriously, there’s no contest), the most watched videotape I have ever owned. Those early viewings were a fun blend of still-potent terror and delightful fear-conquering, and going back to it again and again was an addictive consolidation of that bravery. It helped, of course, that the film was and is a stupendously entertaining experience.
David: How are those maggots?
Michael Emerson: Huh?
David: Maggots, Michael. You’re eating maggots. How do they taste?
Despite the (wisely certified) ’15’ rating, it is an absolutely perfect horror film for 12 year-olds. It’s just scary and gory enough to act as a great gateway to the genre, with the knowledge that one shouldn’t really be watching something rated above their age adding to the frisson. I would further prove my devotion to the Lost Boys cause by pleading with my sister for her to treat me to the film’s UK quad poster (I later found out it was not an original, but I didn’t care) which I would put up on my bedroom wall with pride and yet it would still frighten me a bit at night. Masochistic of me, I’ll admit, to willingly put something that unnerved me right next to where I sleep, but I wouldn’t be like Sam, hiding those stuffed animals Grandpa left by his bed in the closet. From then on the film was watched again. And again. And again. And there would be other great 80s vampire movies too, and I would love them just as much and watch them almost as much.
However, with great love comes mild frustration. I can’t lie, The Lost Boys is not a great example of character writing. The protagonists and antagonists are somewhat thin, most notably David’s fellow vampires, who look great and er… that’s about it. Near-total blanks as personalities. The relationship between Michael and Star is pretty unsatisfying and lacking in heat or passion. In fact, there’s far more chemistry between Michael and David. Theirs is the real romance of the film, even if it is built almost exclusively on the act of drinking blood. The official novelisation, written by Craig Shaw Gardner, who worked from an earlier draft of the script, is far more satisfying and well-rounded when it comes to getting under these characters’ skins, and although it could be fairly considered as airport fodder by non-fans of the film, for existing devotees it is an absolute must read that makes you wish all those missing scenes (only some of which were actually filmed and made available as extras on DVD) were properly part of the final cut.
Still, despite the script’s flaws, The Lost Boys is loaded with so many great performers who invest these two-dimensional characters with wonderful zest that makes them a joy to watch. Other issues? Well the final act, most notably the final confrontation, does feel as though it betrays the increasing darkness of the first two thirds in favour of an explosive, crowd-pleasing extravaganza of loud action and bad one-liners (sorry, but ‘Death by Stereo!’ sucks and always will suck). It’s tremendously enjoyable in its own right, but I wish the The Lost Boys had maintained the eerie spectral atmosphere of the early scenes.
Nevertheless the film – as a whole, as an experience – transcends its flaws. There are literally hundreds of movies better than The Lost Boys, yet nothing in any of them get to me in the same way. They just don’t have those particular images, those sounds, those moments or those intangible bits of magic that Schumacher’s film has. Even in the great scheme of 80s vampire movies, Fright Night is wittier, warmer and classier, while Near Dark is more poetic, soulful, visceral and powerful, and yet even though I’ve watched those films dozens upon dozens of times, I think I’ve seen The Lost Boys even more.
So there you go. I still believe.