“My own brother, a goddamn, shit-sucking vampire. You wait ’till mom finds out, buddy!”
These three 80s films for Killtoberfest 3 did a pretty good job of covering some of the major themes of the era. Altered States looked at an 80s style search for personal enlightenment; They Live sent up Reaganism, from greed and excess to class warfare and creeping authoritarianism; and now 1987’s The Lost Boys takes a horror approach to the genre I think of most when I think of the 80s, the teen movie. Although The Lost Boys fitfully taps into the powerful center of vampire narratives, it ultimately settles down into a serviceable action film. Let’s figure out why.
Broad statement alert: there are only two types of vampire stories. There’s the victim narrative, where ordinary people rise from prey to hunters–aka Stoker’s Dracula. (Examples: Blade, From Dusk Til Dawn, Fright Night, 30 Days of Night.) And there’s the one from the perspective of the vampires (or vampire sympathizers), which focuses on the internal conflict between the desire for freedom and its costs–aka Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. (Examples: Let the Right One In, Martin, Near Dark, The Addiction.) The former is typically a ripping adventure tale (as indeed was Stoker’s original novel), while the latter is an emotional drama with metaphor and symbolism underlying it. Each has its own set of rules and requirements, and it’s much harder than it seems to combine the two effectively, given how often it’s attempted. For The Lost Boys, the trouble is the way that each formulation of the story tends to undercut the other. But you can’t say it’s not ambitious in the attempt.
Of the movie’s two halves, the drama, focusing on elder brother Michael (Jason Patric), is the more successful. Michael, his younger brother Sam (Corey Haim), their mom (Dianne West, very good) and their dog Nanook have just moved in with the mom’s father in the small California beach town of Santa Clara. Santa Clara is a place of excitement, the boardwalk, the rides, the games… but for Michael it represents childhood, a state behind which lurks the darker and more difficult challenges and opportunities of adulthood. As he notes on his way into town, this place is the murder capital of the world, and this ain’t no shark movie. Chasing after an attractive girl, Michael soon finds himself hanging out (no pun intended) with what you might call a bad crowd. Judging by the way they dress, they’re either vampires or people who wish they were vampires. Either way they’re definitely assholes.
But still, they’ve got girls (well, girl–plus a small child, why does nobody ever question that) and they’ve got pot and booze and a creepy cavern hideout, and right when this seems like little more than an overwrought after-school special, suddenly we’re into the ritual. The leader of the bad kids, David (Kiefer Sutherland, born to play bullies) grins and gives Michael a bottle of–wine, he says. “It’s blood,” says the girl. And we realize that this is really three rituals all at once, all of them initiations. Michael must drink alcohol to prove himself worthy of being part of the gang; he must drink blood to become a vampire; and the blood/wine dichotomy tells us that this is a perversion of the ritual of Communion, in which our bodies and our blood become mingled with the body and blood of Christ. I’m not saying this whole movie has a homosexual subtext, but right now David and Michael are doing some mingling. When all three meanings are layered together, we understand that, on a level much deeper than that after-school special, Michael is being initiated into sin. The fact that Michael is largely ignorant of what’s happening is besides the point, which is that he is not yet capable of acting responsibly. In order to navigate out of the trap he’s walked into, he’ll have to find that capability within himself–the capability to choose, as David and his crew have, between his soul and his desires.
Of the movie’s two halves, the adventure, focusing on younger brother Sam, is the less successful, but it still has its moments. Sam has moved with the family to Santa Clara, a place of excitement, the boardwalk, the rides, the games… but for Sam it represents the uncertain qualities of change. There are all sorts of new people in his life–his kooky taxidermy-enthusiast grandfather, the guy dating his mother, the tough kids in the comic book shop–and Sam’s challenge throughout is to test the people around him to see if they’re going to help him or hurt him in this new environment, whether that means tricking potential vampires into eating garlic, holding a mirror up to his brother, bending his grandfather’s rules, or trading careful banter with the Frog brothers. Ironically, Sam’s unnuanced viewpoint of the world, natural for his age and intensified by the comics and movies he’s consumed, make him a much better judge of character than Michael. When one of Michael’s new friends is revealed as a vampire, Sam insists that you can’t be a bloodsucker and a good person at the same time, although obviously he finds some wiggle room in that judgment over time.
Although Sam’s inability to get others to engage him on his level is painful–look how wounded he is when his mother won’t believe him about the vampires–he’s ultimately better equipped than anyone else in the movie to deal with his problems. This is because, partially to its detriment, this half of the film feels like one of Sam’s horror comics come to life. This is why he gets the most badass moment in the whole film. To be clear, not because he is badass, but because both Sam and his enemies exist in a mode where badass moments are the manner in which conflicts are resolved and virtues are rewarded. This particular vampire kill–an arrow through the chest + electrocution by stereo playing rock music–is predicated on the moral and supernatural rules that are handed down to Sam by movies and comic books. Whether he and his friends succeed or fail is based almost entirely on their understanding of both types of rules. It makes sense–like vampires, the lives of children are governed by rules of all different kinds, from parental law to the unwritten schoolyard social guidelines. But still, where Michael must choose the shape of his future, Sam is only required to know things, be brave, and come up with a decent one-liner when the moment calls for it.
The problem, then, is really one of integration of tone and theme between the two sides. Sam’s perspective simplifies Michael’s, making the right and wrong choices seem more obvious than they should be. We should be more sympathetic for the nuance of Michael’s dilemma. The film sells us on the negative consequences of indulging his desires, but not on the lure of the desires themselves. When Michael follows David and his crew on motorbikes to their secret lair, we understand intellectually why he wants to, but we don’t want him to, and the same continues throughout that sequence–the Communion scene, the iconic train trestle scene. Michael wants to prove himself, obviously, and somehow steal David’s girl away by doing so; but why he cares what these jackasses think of him, and why he’s so infatuated with this particular girl he doesn’t know, is pretty mystifying. We’re primed to fall into Sam’s simplistic moralism and judge Michael a moron. Later, Sam’s sequences negate or reduce most of the consequences of Michael’s decisions–in order to stick to the light adventure tone, there can’t be any significant danger or horror involved. (That’s why the movie has to build up the vampires by having them attack a bunch of meaningless non-characters early on.) If you can stop a vampire with a squirt gun, does it really matter if you invite him in?
On the other hand, Michael’s perspective cheapens Sam’s, because it shows us what a serious treatment of the material might look like. There is real potential for emotional depth with Sam, particularly in the way the move and his brother’s new circumstances leave Sam isolated and lonely. Let the Right One In this isn’t, but if there’s one thing 80s art was good at, it was bombastic emotion, absurd but deeply felt. But Sam’s storyline is dominated by the flip side of that 80s coin, a kind of jokey glibness that glosses over pain. Sam’s climactic conversation with his mother is great, and finds real hurt and sadness in a very familiar genre scene (The Adults Just Won’t Listen)–but his reaction immediately afterwards is to ride his bike home and mount up some Home Alone-style, goofball preparations. While Michael is having strange dreams and getting laid and transforming inside and out, Sam is stuck in an artificial world of quips and Chekov guns–a world that would be more compelling if not for the ready comparison with headier, more interesting material.
The other real problem with the movie, although it’s less fundamental, has to do with the ending.
The Lost Boys is not a bad movie, even counting that complaint about the ending. It’s an original take on the genre, it comes up with several great images, it’s atmospheric, it’s often amusing or interesting, and I wanted to see what would happen next the whole way through. Also, I’m pretty sure the movie invents a new type of shot, a swooping helicopter shot that is revealed to be a POV (and used late in the film to great effectiveness, too). The performances are mostly quite good, and several of the characters are neat and memorable, including Sutherland’s teen villain and the brother vampire hunters. And of course Joel Schumacher could and has done worse. (And better, it should be said; I haven’t seen a couple of his best-reviewed films, but I’m partial to bothPhone Booth and The Client.) But does The Lost Boys really deserve the enduring affection it seems to have, particularly among people who saw it during that era when they were young? I don’t think so. Worth seeing, but not worth loving. And if Michael had said the same thing about that damn girl, it would have saved him and his brother a whole lot of trouble.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.