Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Corey Haim, Dianne Wiest, Jami Gertz, and Corey Feldman
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
The first incarnation of a teen vampire story creates a masterful balance of the ominous and the camp.
The year 1957 brought us I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, but it wouldn’t be for another 30 years that we got the inaugural film about teenage vampires (except Martin, which wasn’t exactly about an actual vampire). Nowadays, there have been so many movies, books, and television shows about teenage vampires that it’s difficult to imagine that, when The Lost Boys came out, the idea was new. Looking back on the film, we can see the first incidences of many concepts that appear in later vampire narratives.
The film tells the story of two brothers, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim), who come to a new town with their newly single mother, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), to move in with their eccentric grandfather (Barnard Hughes), as Lucy struggles to get the family back on its feet. Unfortunately, the new town, Santa Carla, California (a fictional name given to the film’s main shooting location, Santa Cruz), suffers from an infestation of the undead.
Older brother Michael is drawn to toothsome Star (Jami Gertz), who introduces him to a gang of ruffians led by the charismatic David (Kiefer Sutherland). That David and his followers are vampires is apparent to the audience early on, but Michael isn’t so quick to heed the warning signs that all is not right with this clique and is soon tricked into drinking David’s blood. The Star/Michael/David interplay is more complex than, at first, it appears. At the beginning, there are subtle suggestions that Star might be David’s girlfriend—for example, she rides on the back of his motorcycle—and that Michael is an unwelcome interloper in their relationship. However, David shows little romantic interest in Star and little sexual jealousy of Michael. Indeed, as the film progresses, Star seems more like the bait David dangles to lure Michael in for David’s seduction. There’s a strong streak of homoeroticism between David and Michael, even if the characters never seem anything but heterosexual.
While Michael is meeting vampires, Sam encounters the pubescent vampire hunters Edgar and Alan Frog (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), who warn him of Santa Carla’s nagging vampire problem. Sam recognizes certain changes in Michael, like the fading of his reflection in the mirror and his newfound ability to fly, and the two undertake to extricate Michael from David’s tribe. Inconveniently, their attempts to save Michael and rid Santa Carla of vampires always seem to get in the way of Lucy’s new relationship with her boss, Max (Edward Herrmann).
The Lost Boys wasn’t originally conceived as a teen movie. The original script, by Janice Fischer and James Jeremias, featured younger characters in a movie like The Goonies (1985) in tone. Director Joel Schumacher suggested raising the ages of the characters for a darker, sexier film.
The film, although viewed as nothing special upon its first release, is now a classic of the teen film and horror genres. Much of the credit has to go to Schumacher, who remains a controversial figure among the people who revere The Lost Boys. There’s a big overlap between fans of vampire films and fans of comic book movies, who abominate Schumacher as the man who put nipples on Batman’s suit, and who never miss an opportunity to excoriate him. I often come across the claim that The Lost Boys is “the only decent movie that Schumacher has made.” But I realize that what that claim really means is “of the three Joel Schumacher films that I’m aware of, The Lost Boys is the only decent one.” Schumacher, however, has had a long career, and the number of his decent films exceeds that of his lousy ones.
What his detractors fail to recognize is that Schumacher is one of the best directors of all time in using color to tell a story. From the grays of Veronica Guerin to the garish saturated neons of Batman Forever, Schumacher’s color palettes create the world of the film. But they do more than just provide ambiance. For example, in Cousins, he contrasts the dark, murky yellow-greens of Sean Young and William Petersen’s sordid affair with the hazy Monetesque pastels of Ted Danson and Isabella Rosselini’s more idyllic illicit romance; in doing so, he directs the audience in how to feel about the two relationships.
The Lost Boys features a palette largely made up of saturated reds, maroons, and browns, calling to mind the color of blood. Schumacher goes so far as to flood the screen with red light during the climactic battle between David and Michael. But his use of color is more complex than simply summoning the thought of blood. Throughout the film, he uses and then reverses a typical film color trope. Usually in films, night scenes are shot so that the world at large has a bluish cast while the area around the characters glows amber. This is to suggest a warm haven from the cold and either nefarious or indifferent world that surrounds the characters. The Lost Boys demonstrates this trope a number of times during the film, most notably during a scene involving a train trestle. However, Schumacher will, then, reverse the colors of the lights in the background and on the characters, invading his blood-soaked environs with shafts of harsh, cold, blue light on the vampires, particularly in the scene in the vampires’ lair where Michael is inducted into their ranks. The effect is made even more striking by the alterations in Kiefer Sutherland’s appearance for the film. The actor’s normally blond hair is bleached nearly white, and the hair, pale face make-up, and black wardrobe make David’s visage seem to take on an otherworldly glow in the cruel blue-white light.
Sutherland’s appearance isn’t the only one altered for the film. Subtle use of hairstyling brings out Jason Patric’s resemblance to Jim Morrison. This resemblance is emphasized in the same scene in the vampires’ lair, as the camera swirls around Michael drinking David’s blood, focusing on a large portrait of Morrison on the wall and dissolving back to Michael. The camerawork in the scene, as in much of the movie, shows the music video aesthetic that was so prevalent in 1980s teen films, but here the music video stylization remains limited and, thus, more effective than in films that use it extensively.
The vampire’s lair is an elaborate set, part cave, part luxury hotel that had been destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as the vampires explain to Michael. The sense of abandonment and deterioration created by the set reflects the idea of “lost boys,” the forgotten youth left to decay in a destructive and indifferent world.
The tone of much of the film is similarly melancholy and ominous, heightened by repeated variations of Gerard McMann’s haunting theme “Cry Little Sister.” Nevertheless, the film subverts this tone with camp dialogue and humorous characters like the cantankerous grandfather and the Frog brothers. The combination of the serious and the camp is not in the least disconcerting. Instead, the juxtaposition of the two modes increases the effectiveness of each, heightening the drama and amplifying the laughter, as the humor provides a cathartic release of tension. This combination of horror melodrama and camp humor will be picked up again with great success in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, illustrating the influence of The Lost Boys.
In addition to excellent filmmaking, The Lost Boys benefits from performances that are vastly superior to those found in other teen horror films of the 1980s. Sutherland, in his first big role in a major theatrical release, leaves the most indelible impression on the viewer. His David, at once seductive and threatening, is a star-making performance. Patric, whose career hasn’t lived up to the promise shown here, proves an effective counterpart. He brings out Michael’s vulnerabilities when with the vampires, his fierce protectiveness when with his brother, and his sneering bravado when around adults. Patric creates a character who is both victim and hero of his own story. The blend of insecurity and boldness that Patric displays, combined with the sibilant, whisper-soft voice, handsome face, intense blue eyes, and sensuous mouth, suggests the potential for greatness as a leading man, a potential that has not been fulfilled.
The supporting cast features a trio of great character actors—Hughes, Herrmann, and Wiest. Wiest was just coming off her first Oscar win for Hannah and Her Sisters; she would go on to win a second Oscar (for Bullets Over Broadway) and two Emmys. Her performance in The Lost Boys, as the concerned, bewildered, and put-upon single mother, while excellent in its own right, seems a rehearsal for her greatest performance, which came two years later in Parenthood. Herrmann, a future Emmy winner, here shows his ability to undermine his impressive stature with an endearing softness. Hughes, who already had garnered an Emmy and a Tony in the half-century career he had leading up to The Lost Boys, brings to the grandfather character an entertaining mix of the crotchety and the mischievous.
The film is notable as the first appearance of Haim and Feldman, who would become known as the “Two Coreys,” in the same film. Feldman has a smaller role and is adequate to the task. Haim, however, becomes a victim of the script revision. He was sixteen when he played the role of the younger brother and co-protagonist, Sam, but the way the role was written suggests a character much younger than sixteen. Even though Haim’s small size could indicate a character as young as twelve or thirteen, Sam often comes off like a seven or eight year old, which, perhaps, he was in the original conception of the screenwriters. Haim does what he can with the character, playing the role without any irony or acknowledgement that his character behaves like someone half his age, but the character works only in moments and not consistently throughout the film.
Among the young people, Jami Gertz is the only female presence, which makes sense—the movie is called The Lost Boys, after all. Even though her physical appearance is not naturally showy or captivating, she does a great job of playing the enchanting seductress, imbuing Star with a mysterious winsome sadness that draws on Michael’s need to be a protector. The relationship between Michael and Star, despite not being given a huge amount of screen time, seems essential to the film and not just a contrivance to undercut the homoeroticism between Michael and David. Yes, the key “seduction” is between the two males, but Gertz makes Star a strong presence in her own right.
Throughout the first two acts, the film is nearly flawless, with the character of Sam as the one major exception. However, in the third act, the film falls apart. The tone of ominous melancholy is abandoned in favor of a schlock action climax, replete with special effects that look horribly dated 27 years later. For three quarters of its running time, the film is moving, entertaining, inventive, and artistically sound, and, then, the greatness gives way to cinematic garbage, a climax that belongs to different, lesser movie, a climax filled with cheap thrills and effects, a climax that undermines the narrative and haunting tone of the rest of the film. The film recovers near the end of the twenty-minute long battle sequence, but the denouement is too pat, even if the final line stands as one of the classic movie closers, up there with Joe E. Brown’s “Nobody’s perfect.”
The Lost Boys comes close to being a great movie, but it’s betrayed by its third act. I want to count this movie as a classic, and, if valued in terms of its influence, it undoubtedly is. Yet, every time I watch it, I feel the need to turn it off when the vampire hunting begins and to imagine an ending worthy of what’s come before. But, perhaps, what’s important is that I do watch it enough to say, “every time I watch it.” It’s a movie that I don’t get tired of, that I can still enjoy, and that I can still unpack and find new delights. It’s not perfect, but it’s very, very good.