Saturday, April 20, 2019

Review: The Lost Boys (1987)

The Lost Boys (1987)

Rated R

Score: 5 out of 5

The Lost Boys is one of the most supremely entertaining '80s horror films I've ever seen. It's not a particularly scary film outside of a handful of moments, nor is it really trying to be, its great vampire makeup effects aside. What it does feel like, however, is the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in embryo, and not just because Kiefer Sutherland's villain, by the account of Buffy's creator Joss Whedon himself, served as the inspiration for one of that show's most enduring and iconic characters. It has the exact same horror-comedy tone of winking acknowledgement and ribbing of the tropes of the vampire genre, all set in a California beach town whose surface barely conceals a dark underbelly where the creatures of the night come out to play. It's Buffy with the girl power themes swapped out for a distinctly '80s counter-cultural punk/goth atmosphere and thinly-veiled homoeroticism, and with way more gore than they could get away with on network television. This was, in short, the movie that made vampires cool, sexy, and edgy again, blowing away the crusty stereotypes from the days of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee while keeping them just as evil and dangerous as they were back then, using them as a metaphor for a youth gang on the surface and... let's just say plenty more once you give it a second look. It's an outrageously stylish film that makes the most of its budget to create both a seedy world and some great action set pieces, the film that proved that Joel Schumacher can, in fact, make good movies.

The film is about a family, composed of the teenage brothers Michael and Sam and their newly divorced, ex-hippie mother Lucy, who move from Phoenix to the California beach town of Santa Clara to live with Lucy's elderly father. Michael and Sam immediately realize that Santa Clara, under its tourist resort image, is a rotten dump where bored youths frequently engage in delinquency, especially once Michael starts falling in with a gang led by the blond-haired, leather-clad punk David. It soon becomes very clear to the boys that David and his friends are far more than just hoodlums -- they're vampires, eager to make a reluctant Michael into one of them. Now Michael and Sam must fight back, together with Lucy, her new boyfriend Max, and the brothers Edgar and Alan Frog, two teenage clerks at a video rental store who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the vampires infesting the town.

While I'd seen this movie before, one thing I didn't remember about it was just how funny it was. This is as much a comedy as it is a horror film, doing for vampires what Scream did for slashers nine years later. The world of The Lost Boys is one where not only do vampires exist, but so does vampire fiction, here represented by the horror comics that the Frog brothers give to Sam to use as research, and the tropes of vampire stories are played around with and subverted frequently to amusing effect. A big part of the film concerns the efforts of the main characters to figure out just what "the rules" of vampires actually are, given that there are so many stories about them that each grant them different powers and weaknesses, and while the Frog brothers got a lot of it right, they were almost fatally wrong on a few points. The Frog brothers themselves also steal the show, a pair of self-serious vampire hunters who style themselves as modern-day Van Helsings even though they're clearly a couple of kids in way over their heads. While they do get a lot done fighting David and his crew, they're just as likely to only survive by sheer luck as much as anything, most notably when a raid on the vampires' hideout in a ruined hotel goes horribly wrong. Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander both did great jobs playing Edgar and Alan as seemingly ridiculous figures who nonetheless can actually do some damage, as though the gang from Stranger Things went through a "rebel" phase and all adopted Eleven's "bitchin'" new look as they fought monsters from the Upside Down. These two could've easily been impossible to take seriously, but the film takes that and just runs with it, serving both the action and the gleeful camp.

And on that note, director Joel Schumacher is nothing if not a guy with a very distinct style. A look at the man's filmography can show multiple instances where this can go horribly, horribly wrong, but here, on a teen vampire movie, his shooting of the film almost like a contemporary music video is one of the most logical fits of director to film I've ever seen. He makes this feel much bigger, grander, and flashier than its fairly simple story of a small group of people vs. a small group of vampires may seem, with Santa Carla's grime feeling like the sort you might picture in a Joy Division video as opposed to a Scorsese film, and the vampires looking like they came straight out of central casting with their camera-ready haircuts and fashion sense. Kiefer Sutherland leads the pack as David, a bleached-blond '80s punk tough guy whose masculine traits are exaggerated to the point of homoeroticism, most notably in his interactions with Michael as he converts the new guy to the dark side. Sutherland may not be playing a very traditional vampire, especially as audiences in 1987 understood the concept, but he's still an immediately menacing, flamboyant, and memorable figure, a thrillseeker who represents vampirism as a power fantasy that lets him do what he wants to anyone he wants. The gay subtext does not stop with David, as Corey Haim's Sam is heavily coded as gay throughout, from a night shirt that says "Born to Shop" to the poster of Rob Lowe in a sexy pose that adorns the door of his closet. While the film never comes right out and says that David or Sam is gay, one could see them as two sides of gay culture, with David as the classic "predator" and Sam as a more modern, wholesome, and faithful (to his family rather than a lover, but I digress) gay man who literally and metaphorically slays the archetype of the past. Thirty years later, it feels almost like Mitchell and Cameron from Modern Family killing the bathhouses, especially given the HIV/AIDS metaphors that the film also works into its portrayal of vampirism (spread through bodily fluids). Jason Patric's Michael is portrayed as unambiguously straight (Jami Gertz's Star, the token female vampire and a reluctant killer, becomes his love interest), but in his interactions with David and Sam, he still feels like a guy pulled between two lovers, David's "bad boy" who clearly isn't good for him and his brother Sam who genuinely cares about him.

And all the while, it's a blast to watch. The special effects still hold up even though you can easily tell where they kept the things they couldn't afford off-camera, most notably most of the scenes of the vampires flying, shot in first person from their perspective as they swoop down on unsuspecting security guards or teenagers necking in their car. The music video style extends to the pacing, which starts off rolling and never lets up as the characters are constantly being pushed forward. The fights between humans and vampires are shot less like a horror movie and more like an action movie, especially a final clash between Michael and David that, barring the lack of CGI, looks like something out of the Underworld movies, with Schumacher more than happy to show off outrageous set pieces and throw his characters straight into them, dropping one-liners that tread the line between cheeseball and kind of awesome. Such is a perfect metaphor for the film as a whole: it could've easily slipped and become either too serious to realize how silly it was or too winking to have any real stakes, but it sticks the landing largely through the strength of its style. It was really a film that only Schumacher on his game could have made, a beautiful yet gritty slice of '80s California that proves that a sunny beach town can be made just as gothic as Transylvanian castles and New England mansions if you know what you're doing and approach it the right way.

The Bottom Line

Quite possibly the gold standard for modern vampire movies trying something different from the classic Universal/Hammer style, The Lost Boys is a portrait of "MTV Generation" goodness whose defiantly '80s style doesn't stop it from still holding up in 2019. If you haven't seen it, you're in for a serious treat.

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