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Throwback

‘The Lost Boys,’ Found: How a Teen Vampire Movie Rose From the Dead To Become a Cult Classic

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The Lost Boys

One of the spookier things about The Lost Boys celebrating its 30th anniversary this week is that we remember the film at all. Released in late summer 1987, it did modest box office and finished the year in 38th place. The actors who played its hero and villain are better known for later varoles. And the youthful sex appeal The Lost Boys brought to the vampire genre had already been tried with The Hunger (1983) and could reasonably be credited to later, bigger hits like Interview with a Vampire (1994) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997).

So how do we end up with a vampire-teen-hybrid that never quite took flight turning 30 and commemorated with a glossy making-of book, a TV series in development and credit from ABC News for “reinvigorating the vampire genre for the next generation?” Well, it possesses that unique hybrid of factors that combine to form a cult classic—what the film already had, what it seemed to understand, and what it never could have predicted.

“Sleep all day, party all night”

Photo: Everett Collection

The Lost Boys was always part vampire movie, part something else. Originally conceived a kids adventure about Peter Pan never growing up because he’s actually a vampire (The title The Lost Boys is a holdover), director Joel Schumacher, fresh off St. Elmo’s Fire, imagined it as his second film in a row about not-quite-adults at an uneasy moment of life transition. Out went the JM Barrie illusions and in went the story of teen brothers Michael and Sam Emerson (Jason Patric and Corey Haim, respectively) who move to the “murder capitol of the world” Santa Carla, only to discover the funky California beach town is home to David (Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang of fellow teenage vampires.

Photo: Everett Collection

With its tagline “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die”, The Lost Boys sees vampirism as an endless nocturnal rager. As such, it’s a relentlessly present vampire movie with no connection to the Dracula fable or lost loves of centuries past. The film’s moralizing around this—that hedonism equals bloodsucking murder—is, like the hairstyles and costumes, unfortunate flotsam from the waning months of the Reagan era. Yet the idea, however slick and superficial, has endured. The wax seal The Lost Boys created between vampires and adolescence, between never aging while your living peers are in the middle of figuring out what it means to be human, has been carried into now by Buffy and Angel, by Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton, by Bella and Edward.

The Vampire of 24

Photo: Everett Collection

Until Buffy, being the vampire in a vampire movie was almost always the better role than its adversary. The Lost Boys seems to get this and gives the movie’s iconic moments—the vampires hanging below a suspension bridge, stalking the Boardwalk with glowering impunity—to Sutherland. Most of Patric’s best scenes are in reaction to something Sutherland’s character has done.

The Lost Boys couldn’t have predicted but seems to intuitively understand these virtues that would shape the two actor’s careers. Patric shines at inhabiting circumstance rather than forcing it, ideal for the beaten cop turned drug addict in Rush (1991) and suburban sexual predator in Your Friends and Neighbors (1998). Sutherland’s David feels like the supernatural older brother to his previous role as Stand By Me‘s Ace Merrill, a malevolent yet seductive charisma that pulls the story toward it. Even though going in, Corey Haim and Corey Feldman were the biggest stars of The Lost Boys, the movie’s key moments belong to fang-bearing, eye-glowing lesser-known Kiefer Sutherland.

In the 1990s, that quality of Sutherland’s got him shoehorned as passive functionaries (A Few Good Men) or stock villains (A Time to Kill). His 2001 turn in 24 weirdly makes The Lost Boys feel like a movie that knew something before the rest of us did: We can almost imagine it now as a fanfic backstory of Jack Bauer before he went straight and joined CTU, an acknowledgement of the actor’s sinister gaze and growl having a kinetic energy all its own.

Vampires in Town

In the 1970s, Santa Cruz, the primary filming location of The Lost Boys, had an unsavory reputation as “murder capital of the world” when two serial killers terrorized the area. By 1987, the area was growing in wealth and population in tandem with nearby Silicon Valley. Families from elsewhere like the Emersons were an increasingly common sight.

Santa Cruz didn’t want to be linked to a movie that planned on using its dated nickname (hence “Santa Carla”). But the murderous vampires in The Lost Boys aren’t invaders but homegrown. Santa Carla seems resigned to its vampire problem until the good normal people move to town and do something about it.

The Lost Boys plays on conservative paranoia about a community rotting because the weirdos have taken over (see the opening “People are Strange” montage where every unnamed citizen of Santa Carla has an eye piercing). More generously, it’s about a community dealing with people trying to live together, each feeling like they have more right to the streets and sidewalks then those who don’t look like them.

Somehow through an accident of location and time, The Lost Boys manages to be about both the 1980s and the issues underlying living in the polyglot America of 2017. It didn’t intend any of this but it’s hard not to to see its vapor trails in our heated exchanges over gentrification, immigration and Making America Something It’s Currently Not Again.

It’s tempting to grant magic powers to a cult film, that from the beginning it knew something its small-minded detractors overlooked. The reasons a movie goes from ignored to cult classic are both inherent and beyond its grasp, from its theatrical run to its cable (and eventually streaming) afterlife. Add the right conditions—an actor’s later work, a pop culture trend even a full moon—and you have The Lost Boys, a movie that hasn’t died by both growing old and staying young and eventually, outliving adolescence all together.

Kevin Smokler is the author of the new book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies, out now.

Where to stream The Lost Boys

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