To get into the Halloween spirit, I recently rented an ’80s vampire classic I’ve been meaning to watch for a while: The Lost Boys. Or, as my friend described it when a conversation about Stranger Things fell into the ’80s at large, “that movie with the sexy vampires wearing earrings,” which. True:
Beyond sexy, punk, homoerotic vampires, however, The Lost Boys is a prime example of one of my favorite things about ’80s teen movies, which is their tendency towards contrast and extremes. The Breakfast Club gave me whiplash veering from goofy dance scenes to dark personal problems; Heathers makes you think it’s a coming-of-age tale and turns into a dark comedy scrabbling to see how far it can go. The Lost Boys is horror running side by side with family drama, takes a playful jab at action heroes, and plays the eventual collision for comedy. The fusion of genres is playful, and though its R rating is presumably based in the gore of the final battle (the effect of holy water on vampires gave me flashbacks to the face-peeling scene in Poltergeist, which I saw once as a kid and refused to watch ever again) and the (relatively tame) sex scene, its themes of family loyalty and healing are as all-ages as it gets.
I fell in love with the movie practically from the title card, zooming across the water to a children’s choir chanting what sounds at first like the ten commandments over ’80s synth. It’s a heavy-handed contrast that introduces the thematic conflict between modern counterculture and tradition, with lyrics that double as warning and foreshadowing. “Thou shall not fall / Thou shall not die / Thou shall not fear / Thou shall not kill.” There’s an inherent threat hiding behind the “thou shall not” phrasing familiar to anyone who grew up hearing the Old Testament preached urgently from a pulpit, with the depth of the fall emphasized by the film’s first vampiric murder two minutes later. Michael (Jason Patric), dangling on the edge of temptation for most of the film, is met with a triumphant reprise of the song — Gerard McMahon’s “Cry Little Sister” — when he ultimately heeds the warning and chooses his relationship with Star (or at least reciprocal teenage lust) over the immortality and thirst of the punk, leather jacket-wearing vampires.
So while Michael struggles with mind-manipulating vampires and astonishing new appetites, his younger brother Sam (Corey Haim) learns how to fight vampires from comic books and the 15-year-old kids who sell them. (Disclaimer: I have no idea how old the characters are, but the actors, Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, were about that age.) Miniature Rambo wannabes, Edgar and Alan Frog lampoon the archetypal action hero. They deliver every pronouncement with the intensity and comedic gravitas that can only come from the sincere belief that you are saving the world from ultimate evil and it is a Grand Adventure. Filled with the righteousness of their quest, decked out in camo and trying not to drop wooden stakes everywhere, they turn the worship of violence into a farce. While they are quick to declare violence as the only solution, when confronted with attacking vampires their bravado melts away. They are panicky, yelling teenagers whose LARP got too real, a description which probably applies to a great many people who talk big and put stock in violence without having to engage in it.
Underpinning all of it is a story about family standing together. Michael and Sam’s mom, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), just wants to keep her family happy after a divorce. In an attempt to turn the movie into a romcom, she starts dating her new boss, Max, only for her dates to fall apart from her kids’ shenanigans. She encourages open communication with Sam and Michael without trying to force them to talk. Meanwhile, her kooky dad gives the family free reign of his house, Sam puts his loyalty to Michael over everything else, and Michael is staunchly determined to keep Sam safe. Honestly, this family is just about the height of healthy familial flailing while healing from trauma and having to deal with literal vampires, and their love for each other basically saves the day.
Of course, this stance ultimately offers a message about fearing the Other, demonizing the outcasts and the Evil Temptations of Youth. This is particularly toxic in queer readings of the movie, where David and his cohort of vampires embody the fears held towards gay people, with a contagious condition passed through bodily fluids and the threat of luring kids into a dangerous life that will rip apart families. Michael’s rejection of David’s vampirism, and the ensuing sex scene with Star, is then a metaphorical return to heterosexual norms that paves the way for the vampires’ eradication and the return to normalcy. The final line, Lucy’s dad stating distastefully that the one thing he could never stomach about the area is “all the damn vampires,” sounds for all the world like your bigoted relatives complaining about the [minority group of your choice] ruining everything. It’s a punchline delivered with such casualness so as to seem absolutely absurd, yet captures a dangerous attitude prevalent throughout society.
The Lost Boys is awash in narrative absurdity. How does the grandfather know about vampires and why does he not care beyond casual hatred? Why does the climax of the movie hinge on a three-point revolving plot twist? Why does one of the minor vampires have the most traumatizing death scene, with blood exploding from every faucet in the house? What are the implications of director Joel Schumacher himself being a gay man? Is it possible to read Sam as questioning his sexuality and the Frog brothers as flirting with him over comics, thus offering a happier alternative to the violence of the main plot? The answer to that last one, at least, is yes. And The Lost Boys have earned themselves a fond spot on my shelf as “Halloween nonsense for future returns.”