Fearflix 49

THE LOST BOYS

USA 1987

DIRECTOR JOEL SCHUMACHER

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Talent may not be essential but anyone who graduates from film school to big Hollywood budgets needs to have worked hard.  Joel Schumacher has been too uneven in his career for anyone to make decisions about his talent. Neither has age nor history been kind to him. His latest films have been stinkers. Maybe his interest in film began with hard work, and he became tired. The hard work at film school is evident in The Lost Boys. Like any other film graduate, Schumacher has watched a lot of films. He was born in 1939, and the films he references in The Lost Boys are dominated by favourites from the fifties. The chicken run on motorbikes recreates what James Dean did in an American motorcar in the film Rebel Without A Cause. At least half the teenagers in the film impersonate Marlon Brando or James Dean, and the rest give performances that are somewhere in between. The opening encounter with the vampires at the fairground pays homage to the fifties Hitchcock classic, Strangers On a Train. After they leave the fairground the vampires ride around on motorbikes like the gang of Brando in The Wild One.

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The plot of The Lost Boys belongs to early 60s teen movies. A young boy moves to a different home, mom meets a man who might become a substitute father and older brother meets new friends who are unpleasant. The family is threatened but perky defiant innocence and positive American ambition prevail. Something similar happens in The Lost Boys except that the kids have attitude and the unpleasant friends are vampires. These bloodsuckers do more than sneer, smoke and drink although they do that as well.

 

The Lost Boys is comic horror but there is a long wait before the comedy arrives. For the first half hour characters and place are established and red herrings are laid. Most of the comedy consists of the startled reaction in the young teenagers to the presence of vampires. The best lines belong to young Sam who has to cope with his older brother becoming a vampire. ‘You’re a vampire,’ says Sam. ‘You just wait until Mom finds out.’  When we hear this, the laughs begin.

In the American teen movies of the sixties, teenage culture was defined as being the behaviour and taste of white people. Because they could not afford him, and even though he was being sanitised elsewhere in Hollywood, Elvis was rarely mentioned in these films about young white people.   Rock and roll was for the bad guys who threatened the neighbourhood and beach parties. Neither is Elvis mentioned in The Lost Boys but the line that says a billion Chinese cannot be wrong about rice is surely a reference to the title of an album  by Elvis Presley. This was 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

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The Lost Boys has plenty of precedents. Teenagers have wondered about how far rebellion or hedonism should be pursued for some time.   The decision between rebellion and conformity, or virtue and vice, is not new. Teenage gang culture often requires that boys accept the risk of martyrdom. Vampires are a suitable metaphor for self-destructive curiosity. The vampires in The Lost Boys not only risk martyrdom. They embrace it, and their peculiar martyrdom gives them a swagger. In England, away fans at football matches behave in a similar fashion. The vampires relish swinging from railway bridges, letting go and falling into the fog of the abyss. When Michael the older teenager brother lets go of his grip and falls into nothing, he becomes one of the gang.

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Sam, the younger brother of Michael, sings along to the great rock and roll record Ain’t Got No Home by Clarence Frogman Henry. The significance of the song title is obvious. Something else, though, needs to be noted.  There are no black Americans in The Lost Boys. Black culture is something that white teenagers sampled from a distance in the 60s, especially when there was a beach nearby. Considering the memories of teenage culture on display, the most important movie references in The Lost Boys are a surprise. They also hint that Schumacher was interested in something other than mere laughs. Grandpa Sam wears a bandanna around his head like Sam Peckinpah and he looks a little like the famous director. We meet Grandpa when he is lying on the floor pretending to be dead. Peckinpah startled his friends when he did this after a heart operation.   Grandpa Sam is a no-nonsense man who has a girlfriend and who likes a drink. In the final scene of the movie his actions and pithy sentence imply that Grandpa has more of the male Western hero in him than we realised.

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More surprising is the similarities to the Polish movie classic Ashes and Diamonds. In that film, Zbigniew Cybulski plays Maciek, a man who has fought for the Home Army. This is a right wing resistance movement. When the war ends, Maciek has to kill a Communist. For much of the film Maciek wanders around Warsaw trying to work out his feelings about killing a man who was his fellow soldier in the war. Realising that Poland will not be anything like he envisaged, Maciek has become a warrior who will be denied the heroism he may have sought. As he sidesteps self-loathing, he adjusts to having to think of his previous comrades as the enemy.  Feminists can be forgiven for not being sympathetic to Maciek but in such circumstances masculine identity suffers. The vampire has similar problems. His parasitic nature cannot be good for self-esteem, and he has to consider his previous neighbours as a source of food. Michael, the older brother and newly created vampire, has the same dilemmas as Maciek in Ashes And Diamonds.  Both men feel they are adrift of the warring factions and both have affectionate girlfriends who are preoccupied by survival. All are ambivalent about right and wrong and wary of the future.

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Fortunately for Michael the coastal community of Santa Carla is neither as complicated nor as unforgiving as Poland must have been at the end of the Second World War. Sam, the younger brother, and his friends, the Frog Brothers, have determination and certainty. They believe vampires should be destroyed and that Michael needs to be rescued.   The final confrontation is good because the audience has no faith in the dopey teenage battlers, and, as we watch, we are curious to see how they might succeed. Grandpa and the domestic pet, which is supposed to be a dog but looks like a wolf, help in the fight.

We know The Lost Boys has been informed by the struggle of Maciek because of the sunglasses or shades that Michael wears to protect his vampire sensitivity from the sun. The sunglasses that he wears have a close resemblance to those worn by Maciek. This observation is not mere fancy. Andrezj Wajda directed Ashes And Diamonds in 1958. In interviews Wajda has admitted that the style of his film was influenced by American cinema. Wajda was a fan of The Wild One and Marlon Brando. All that the director needed was the right pair of shades for his angst-ridden hero.

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If Schumacher draws from both The Wild Ones and Ashes And Diamonds, he does not create a binding symmetry. But what he borrows adds to the resonance of his film. He reminds men, and maybe women as well, of the choices they had to make when they were young. The film stresses that survival is determined as much by others as ourselves.   The Lost Boys begins at the fairground. This is a good choice for a key location. In the past the fairground was where many provincial young men had to decide what was important, if it was worthwhile pretending to be tough, and whether ignoring future consequences was either stupid or brave.   Michael does not prevail because he is a hero. He is vulnerable, wounded and needs help. Both Michael and his girlfriend need to be rescued if he is to mature.

Ashes And Diamonds argues that if you want to kill then someone will be found who can be regarded as the enemy.  In The Lost Boys the humans who provide food are regarded by the vampires as timid and worthless. There is always justification for the powerless to exploit and for the violent to indulge in slaughter. Amidst this nonsense the legacy for the individual who has a yearning for something other than status or gratification is self-hatred or delusion. All these ideas are provoked by The Lost Boys. None of it dilutes the comedy and the supernatural horror, which is why Schumacher is entitled to be proud of his achievement and to feel the hard work was for once justified.

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Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.

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