ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 22 – 80s VAMPIRES
When I was a kid, I used to park myself in front of the television and watch HBO virtually non-stop. I’d end up videotaping just about every film that was broadcast, and I’d watch them until I knew every beat, every moment, and could run the film in my head with near-perfect precision. Obviously, some films hit me in ways others didn’t, and these were the ones that remained on constant loop throughout my adolescence. THE LOST BOYS was one such film; and back in the summer of 1988, Little Erik had this on constant rotation with STAND BY ME, THE EXORCIST, and LA BAMBA.*
Over the years, as my perspective has changed (and both the process of making and writing about films has desensitized me), I’ve gone back to revisit many of my childhood favorites and found them distressingly lackluster for a variety of reasons. STAND BY ME doesn’t hold up quite as well (for me) because I’ve lost that conviction every twelve year-old possesses, rendering the film part nostalgia and part smarmy melodrama; and THE EXORCIST has become less frightening because I can now see through every single special effect, and I don’t have the Faith necessary to buy into the final battle. Still brilliant, though. LA BAMBA remains one of the best Rock Biopics, but that doesn’t stop it from getting a bit irritatingly self-indulgent at times, a flaw within most films of the genre that try to create a legend out of some dude who could play the guitar fairly well.
Now, this isn’t to say I no longer enjoy these films: I still adore them unconditionally, albeit with a more cynical eye. Of the four examples I’ve listed, however, the only film that still retains the power to make me grin like an idiot is the one that has the least right to: Joel Schumacher’s THE LOST BOYS. Almost improbably, it refuses to let its style date the picture (SEE: Kiefer’s amazing mullet), and also refuses to show flaws otherwise blanketed by nostalgia. Indeed, this is easily one of the best vampire films ever made; and it’s an example of lightning in a bottle. This film can never be duplicated.
The plot is almost purposefully straight forward. Lucy Emerson (Dianne Wiest) has moved her sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) to the fictional So-Cal town of Santa Carla after a particularly messy divorce. They move in with the eccentric and unnamed Grandpa (Barnard Hughes) in a cabin that, in Sam’s words, looks like something out of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, as Gramps has a rather excessive collection of stuffed wildlife. There’s no TV (but Grandpa reads the TV Guide; “If I read the TV Guide, I don’t need a TV”), and the local population seems to be dominated by a hippie culture eternally stuck in 1969. The boys find themselves spending their time at the beach, prowling the Boardwalk, and making less-than-savory new friends, some of whom are vampires, and some of whom make vampires look positively normal.
The bloodsuckers in question are the titular “Lost Boys,” a group of leather-clad, motorcycle-riding nosferatu who have snazzy Kip Winger hair and the ability to make Chinese food turn into maggots. Led by the mysterious David (Kiefer Sutherland), the Gruesome Foursome recruit Michael into the ranks of the undead, leaving Sam and his new friends, the vampire-hunting Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamisson Newlander) to save Michael before he vamps out.
THE LOST BOYS is one of the most influential “modern” vampire films, and is a rare example of the marriage of style and substance. Joel Schumacher (known in some circles as That Son Of A Bitch Who Ruined The BATMAN Franchise) brought a music video sensibility to the film; and by combining striking cinematography with a kick-ass soundtrack, he made the first film for the MTV generation. Some could argue that this is a bad thing; but latter-day directors focused more on creating two-hour musical montages rather than telling a story with strong, dynamic characters. THE LOST BOYS may be the first and only example of how to do this properly.
One of the film’s strongest points is the cast. While this could have easily been a showcase for the Hot Teen Actor of the Moment, Schumacher and producer Richard (THE OMEN) Donner give us an ensemble of virtual unknowns and character actors. It’s no surprise that this is the film that launched the career of The Coreys (Haim and Feldman), as both are given ample screen time to show that — with a good script and strong director — these guys could actually be pretty damn entertaining. Kiefer Sutherland also rose through the ranks after appearing in this flick; and for about five minutes, it looked like both Jason Patric and Jamie Gertz (playing hippie half-vampire Star) could have made something more of their Hollywood careers.
As strong as the youngsters are (to say nothing of their marketability), the adults are given equal opportunity to shine. Dianne Wiest is given the typically thankless job of The Mother Who Doesn’t Believe That Vampires Exist; but Wiest, a criminally under-employed actress, gives the character a heart that’s missing from similar roles. Also impressive is Barnard Hughes as the quirky Grandpa (who may know more about what’s going on in Santa Carla than he lets on), and Edward Herrmann as Max, the charming video store owner who romances Lucy Emerson and makes for a nice red herring about halfway through the film.
THE LOST BOYS is one of those flicks that refuses to die. While the very “hip” quality threatens to date the film, it actually works in its favor. Schumacher and the costume designers gave the characters a very Me Decade look, one that was up-to-the-minute in 1987; and yet they meshed it with a retro-60s quality that renders the film timeless. For this reason the re-watchability factor is higher than, say, any other movie from that hideous fucking time period, mostly because you never once get the feeling that this is an “old” movie. Even the synth-heavy soundtrack endures, with songs like “Cry Little Sister” or “Lost in the Shadows” adding to the viewing experience rather than detracting from it.
It doesn’t hurt things that the screenplay (written by Jeffrey Boam, Janice Fischer and James Jeremias) makes this film insanely quotable. The balance between humor and scares is uncanny, and succeeds where others fail. Add to this the numerous references to other classic vampire films (SALEM’S LOT and DRACULA A.D. 1972 being the best), and you’ve got an engaging story with clever nods to an appreciative audience.
But is it scary? Depends on who you ask. THE LOST BOYS caused me to experience many things – including an aversion to Rob Lowe – but genuine fear was never one of them. For that, you have to flip over to another seminal 80s Vampire Flick, and one that’s just as funny, sexy, and cool as Schumacher’s film, and oddly more homoerotic than what that film’s openly gay director created (particularly considering the asexual aspects of the Undead). I am referring, of course, to FRIGHT NIGHT.
Why did I open with the later film, which owes more than a few nods to not-Spider-Man director Tom Holland’s 1985 release? Probably because, as previously stated, FRIGHT NIGHT is just as hip as THE LOST BOYS, and that factor needed to be addressed first, and upfront. The difference between them is that FRIGHT NIGHT wants to scare you; and during its marketing campaign, it did exactly that.
FRIGHT NIGHT takes its cues from the Hammer and AIP films that ran from the late 50s through the mid-70s, and conjures up an atmosphere that’s as dated as it’s is timely and relevant, all the more given the contemporaneous AIDS panic and perceived epidemic of homosexuality.** It’s also a very simple, and very effective, premise. High school student Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale) becomes convinced that his new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. After provoking the undead menace with tricks learned from watching old Horror movies, Charlie convinces Peter Cushing/Vincent Price amalgam Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) to dust off his Fearless Vampire Killer props from decades-old Creature Features to become a real-life Van Helsing. Things don’t go Charlie or Peter Vincent’s way, because Dandridge is always three steps ahead of them.
First, the Gay thing. Much the same way that A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE has its subtext enhanced by the supposedly incidental casting of Mark Patton in the lead role, FRIGHT NIGHT features two actors who are now very much Out. Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffries both went in very different directions after their 1985 hit (the former became a co-star on MARRIED…WITH CHILDREN; the latter starred in Boy-on-Boy porn), but at the time of FRIGHT NIGHT’s release, neither was considered a “known” actor, let alone publicly regarded in terms of his or her sexuality. Despite borrowing the DARK SHADOWS trope that Dan Curits would recycle for his Jack Palance-starring take on DRACULA – in which the female protagonist is the reincarnation of the vampire’s lost love – the idea of gender is oddly irrelevant in Holland’s film. Charlie wants to fuck his girlfriend because he wants to fuck his girlfriend; there’s no fetishing of her appearance until she grows fangs and – bizarrely – a long mane of flaming red hair. In fact, Charlie seems to have more of a Will-They-or-Won’t-They relationship with his frenemy “Evil” Ed, and every scene between them prompts the question of whether Ragsdale and Geoffires are going to fight or fuck. Adding to this the ambiguous relationship between Dandridge and his sorta-human male roommate (which the film even goes so far as to speculate may in fact be a sexual one in the form of a relevant throwaway line), you have a perfect storm of subtext lying comfortably on the narrative surface. The fact that Sarandon was previously best known for playing a transsexual in DOG DAY AFTERNOON offers more to contemplate. Whether as an accident, or by design, FRIGHT NIGHT is oozing with homoeroticism at a time when such topics were more frightening even than nosferatu.
But if we’re discussing things that are frightening, we have to discuss the ad campaign. Nothing in those TV spots indicated that FRIGHT NIGHT was a movie about vampires; during the height of the Slasher craze, such ideas were quaint in the extreme. The main plot was essentially ignored in favor of a more nebulous concept of general supernatural shenanigans occurring in the previously unoccupied house next door. The previews were terrifying to a young Erik who stayed up entirely too late on Saturday nights to catch old reruns of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE (to say nothing of what was then the worst season of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE). The imagery specifically selected to sell the film revolved around Bearse in full-blown Bloodsucker Mode: her monstrously enlarged mouth and mouthful of shark’s teeth was easily the most terrifying thing on television to date. These quick images, coupled with a hard sell that refused to tell you what you were buying, made FRIGHT NIGHT required viewing once it hit home video.
There’s a third film that is often lumped in with THE LOST BOYS and FRIGHT NIGHT, and that’s Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK. Despite the very different objectives and end products of its more famous brethren, NEAR DARK is problematic in terms of categorization. It’s a far more nihilistic experience, and one that seems disinterested in portraying its Undead as sexy or cool; if it shares any common ground, it’s the notion of how vampires could exist in the late 20th Century, and the means by which they would be necessarily forced to adapt.
THE LOST BOYS and FRIGHT NIGHT marked the end of the Vampire Film as Pop Culture Horror. The early Ann Rice stink of romanticism could be sniffed, but the adaptation of her INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (as well as BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, two years prior) would lead down a road that ended in bad parody (DRACULA; DEAD AND LOVING IT) and unintentional parody (TWILIGHT). Perhaps over-familiarity has drained the shivers and fright from the concept, but it’s nothing a minor blood transfusion couldn’t accidentally bring back to life.***
*With the exception of the movie about the little girl being forced to rape herself with a crucifix, the other thing (besides HBO rotation) the thing these movies have in common is the presence of a killer soundtrack. I owned each, and played them down to the bone. It was a glorious time to be a fan of movies and music.
**The 2011 remake is loose in the loosest sense of the word loose, and contains none of the original’s charm, nostalgia, originality, or creeping fear. And the less we ever see of Christopher Mintz-Plasse ever again, the better.
***By which I mean “INXS.”