“The Lost Boys” was horror for an overlooked audience

The Lost Boys The Lost Boys (Warner Bros.)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Horror has a problem. Beyond the rampant sexism and harassment, the industry grudgingly at best has made room at the table for women horror fans, let alone female horror creators. Anything created with a female audience in mind, such as last year’s loose remake of Black Christmas, is immediately viewed with a suspicious and often derisive eye. Such suspicion is nothing new. Just as Joel Schumacher tempted audience wrath with a gloriously queer take on Batman, so too did he dare to reject traditionally male audiences with The Lost Boys, arguably the first horror movie meant to appeal directly not just to girls, but teenage girls (not to mention certain teenage boys, but no one was going to admit that in 1987).

Based on a script written by Janice Fischer and James Jeremias, The Lost Boys was originally envisioned as a horror take on The Goonies, with adolescent vampires hunted by a trio of nine year-olds. With Schumacher on board as a director, however, it was changed into something a little darker and sexier, for an older teen audience. Schumacher brought in Jeffrey Boam to rewrite the script, aging up the characters, though curiously leaving in some of the original dialogue, which makes it odd when Sam, played by 15 year-old Corey Haim, is told he needs a babysitter, and asks to sleep with his mother in one scene. That said, with help from Boam, not to mention a young, mostly unknown cast, Schumacher made a glossy, stylish movie that isn’t scary, exactly, but it’s creepy, and has more atmosphere than a dozen slasher movies released during the same time period.

Everything about The Lost Boys looks like the fevered dream of a 14 year-old girl, right down to the steampunk meets Adam Ant clothing vampire David (Kiefer Sutherland) and his band of merry bloodsuckers wear. Other than Sam’s mother Lucy (Dianne Wiest) and half-vampire peasant skirt wearing goddess Star (Jami Gertz), there are almost no other female characters, not even standing around just to be victims or eye candy. It’s sexy, but not sexual–even the love scene between Sam’s older brother Michael (Jason Patric) and Star is gauzy and romantic, with not a single glimpse of gratuitous nudity (only Michael is shirtless), and it tastefully cuts away just as they lay down together. Compare that to Fright Night, released two years earlier, where the vampire isn’t a baby-faced teenage boy, but rather a 40 year-old man, who seduces his young prey by pressing his crotch up against her and putting a hand between her legs while they dance. 

Granted, at 27 Amanda Bearse wasn’t a particularly convincing teenager, but she was still playing one, in a scene that jump-started puberty for much of its audience. It’s unbearably sexy, but also a little frightening too, when you’re young and inexperienced. David, on the other hand, while not harmless, exactly (because he’s definitely killed some people), is more subtle in his dangerousness. He’s the bad boy of teen girl fiction, the one who might be tamed with just a little love.

Everything about The Lost Boys looks like the fevered dream of a 14 year-old girl, right down to the steampunk meets Adam Ant clothing vampire David (Kiefer Sutherland) and his band of merry bloodsuckers wear.

The Lost Boys might also be the first movie to make being a vampire seem appealing, as opposed to dreary and lonely. It’s right there on the movie’s poster: “Sleep all day, party all night. It’s fun to be a vampire.” David and the others don’t go to school, as opposed to the vampires in the Twilight series, who are all evidently in the 97th grade. They don’t have to live the bleak, itinerant lives of the vampires in Near Dark, released later the same year. Hell, they don’t even have to leave Santa Carla, where, given the infamous final line of the movie, and that the town is known as “The Murder Capital of the World,” everyone knows they exist, and have chosen to do nothing about it (not unlike the adults of Derry, Maine). A beachside amusement park town, Santa Carla is a 24 hour party, and David and the boys are crashing it whether you like it or not.

To adult eyes, the vampires’ dilapidated hideout looks like a tetanus shot waiting to happen. To teen viewers, with its faded rock posters and dusty antiques strewn about, it’s oddly glamorous, a combination of a pirate’s cave, a haunted house, and a lost fairy tale castle. David and the other boys just hang out there all they want, smoking weed and eating Chinese food, and they don’t have to answer to anybody. The closest they have to a parental figure is video store owner Max (Edward Herrmann, in an underrated “I don’t have to raise my voice to be intimidating” villainous turn). He has no real control over them, however, as illustrated when they show up both at his job and his house to taunt him. Indeed, he’s not just interested in turning kind, nurturing Lucy into a vampire because he likes her, but because “boys need a mother.”

Jason Patric & Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys (Warner Bros.)

Traditional lore often depicts vampires, even when they’re the villain, with an air of tragedy, trapped in an eternal cycle of grief and longing, either for their mortal pasts, or a lost love. David and the others are blissfully untroubled by such things. There’s no indication that any of them miss what they used to be. We don’t know where they came from, how long they’ve been vampires, or if anyone is still out in the world looking for them, and it doesn’t seem to matter.

They definitely don’t need to worry about the future, like where to go to college, what they want to do with their lives, who they’re going to end up disappointing and how. All that matters to them is right now. It’s the best part of being young, and they get to live that way forever. If you can think back to when you were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, and you wouldn’t have thought that was the sexiest, most enticing shit you’d ever heard at the time, I don’t know what to tell you.

It would be fair to say that the success of The Lost Boys helped to usher in the era of “MTV horror,” in which far more energy was put into pulling together an aggressively attractive cast than trying to make something scary and exciting. It would not be fair, however, to minimize Joel Schumacher’s role in making horror (fine, horror-comedy for all the pedants out there) more accessible, and for acknowledging that, lo and behold, teen girls turned out (and continue to be) a key marketing demographic, whether boys like it or not.

Though the original audience for The Lost Boys was probably closer to the dorky Frog Brothers than frock coat wearing creatures of the night, it was nice to dream of not having to ever look back or forward, no worries, no disappointments. No heartbreak, no loss, just a world that shivers at your presence, as you fly over a dark and endless sea.

The Lost Boys Trailer:

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