Monsters & Mullets: The Lost Boys (1987)
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
I held out against watching The Lost Boys for years. And years. I don't like teen movies, and I especially don't like '80s teen movies, and I particularly don't like those '80s teen movies the mere mention of which send my peers into squealing paroxysms of nostalgic delight. Sixteen Candles? The Breakfast Club? Dude, they suck.
Given my reflexive loathing of '80s teen movies, and because Lost Boys is spoken of in such reverent tones, often by the same people who speak in reverent tones about all those other movies I hate, I was not looking forward to (re)watching it. "Eighties crap," I've quietly assured myself for years. "I'm not missing anything."
I was wrong.
While not, strictly speaking, a high fantasy movie, The Lost Boys meets the two major criteria for a Monsters & Mullets feature. First, of the holy trinity of classic movie-monsters, the vampire surely sits at the right hand of God. Secondly, mullets. Mullets aplenty. Mullets everywhere. Mullets on vampires. In the '80s. Win/win/win.
Yeah. I didn't have any siblings or cousins. My parents were academics. Eighties pop-culture, for me, was a combination of NPR and PBS - on the rare occasion that we watched tv at all. (Movies, yes - we watched loads, and many were Monsters & Mullets classics. But not tv.) So I didn't care about the '80s as a cultural phenomenon at the time. What's more, I didn't - and don't - care about the '80s after the '80s, either. Everyone seemed to get really nostalgic about '80s stuff really fast. People were talking about how The Breakfast Club was the most importantest movie ever in the history of ever by 1995; they were watching Pretty in Pink at parties; they were dressing like Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles for prom. And this was less than a decade later. And it's still going on. People my age are still nostalgically ironic about the '80s, or ironically nostalgic, or just plain nostalgic, still watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off and dancing to "Like a Prayer" as though these things represent the exact and finite peak of pop-culture.
And that includes The Lost Boys. Watching Lost Boys last weekend is the second time I've seen it. I was dragged kicking and screaming to my first viewing by my high school boyfriend more than a decade ago, and I slept through the whole thing.
I did not sleep through the film this time around. And do you know why? Yes you do. The Lost Boys is actually pretty awesome.
Michael and Sam move in with their mother and grandfather following their parents' divorce. Gramps, a rascally old weirdo, lives in a California costal town with an amusement park and an unusual number of missing and dead people. Michael, the elder son, is instantly smitten with a pretty girl and manages, somehow, to impress her leather-clad, bleached-blond bemulleted slab of a boyfriend (played to the hilt by a young Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang of Jim Morrison-idolizing yes-men. Sam, meanwhile, has managed to befriend two comic-book reading brothers, who warn him that the town's problems are the result of a gang of vampires.
Surprise surprise, the vampire gang is Kiefer and his posse of tearabouts. They get an unknowing Michael to drink blood and he begins the transformation process, to Sam's despair. Meanwhile, the boys' mother has started dating an incredibly dorky guy in bad glasses. Also, grampa keeps giving Sam taxidermied animals, which he stuffs into his closet. Only one of these facts becomes important later on.
Michael becomes increasingly disassociated with his family, so Sam and his friends cook up a plan to save him, a plan which involves finding and disposing of the head vampire. (They naturally suspect Sam's mother's boyfriend.) After hunting down and destroying one of the teen vamps, (the vamps sleep suspended upside down) the boys return home and batten down the hatches for a full-scale assault. Kiefer and his boys come a-callin', but holy water in squirt guns, stakes made of antlers and grampa's old car save the day. Michael is rescued from his metaphor for testosterone and family connections are reestablished and strengthened. Yay!
Undeniable truth first. The Lost Boys is so Eighties. Really. So Eighties. The costumes (stone-washed jeans!), the hairstyles (bleached mullets!), the soundtrack (a boys choir intoning the seven deadly sins!), the setting (a California beachside amusement-park!), the camera direction (extended helicopter shots! The bat-cam!), the characters (teenagers!), the plot (nerdy new kid in town falls in with the wrong crowd, wins the popular girl away from her assy boyfriend!), the comic relief (dorky comic-book-reading younger sibling! Crazy grandpa! Wittering mother!)
So, like, I should totally hate this movie, right? But I don't. Instead of all this happening at some sparkly high school, it takes place in the murder capital of the world. The popular jackass and his army of douchebaggy clones are vampires. The dorky little brother and the crazy grandpa are legitimately awesome and save the day. Yes, the girl is a one-note idiot called Star; yes, the main character is an unsalvagable loser; yes, the wittering mother is ridiculous and completely useless.
And, yes, it's all a big ol' metaphor. Jason Patrick's Michael sleeps all day and stays out all night; he wears sunglasses inside and occasionally experiences bouts of violent and uncontrolled temper. He can no longer relate to his younger brother or his mother. Weird things are happening to his face. He does dumb stuff to impress girls. Say it with me, folks: he's a teenager! No, he's a vampire! Cue the laughtrack!
But the movie works. This bizarrely structured, cynically engineered piece of Hollywood post-adolescent pop-trash actually works.
Bizarrely structured: The Lost Boys started life as a Goonies-esque kids-caper flick and eventually morphed into the bemulleted teen-angst classic you know and love. This goes a long way toward explaining the characterization of the younger sibling and his dorky comic-book loving friends, who are played by young(ish?) teenagers but act like they're between eight and ten years old. This also helps explain the preposterously unlikely setting for the film's climax - not the sunken church or the twisting, chaotic fairground, but instead the boys' house, which they boobytrap in anticipation of the coming battle and then systematically, thoroughly trash. Houses get their fair share of destruction in kids' movies, but it seems a little out of place in a by-the-numbers teen film. Whether by accident or design, however, Lost Boys is not a by-the-number teen movie. So the home-razing works.
Cynically engineered: considering the fact that Lost Boys was directed by schlockmeister Joel Schumacher, I'm reluctant to believe that the film was meant to succeed in the ways that it does. Schumacher demanded the actors be teenagers instead of kids, apparently because he thought teenagers would make the film sexier. Lost Boys actually falls apart when it hits the expected teen-movie notes. Jason Patrick as Michael is a mopey, affect-free near-blank and his lady-love, Star, is even worse. Dianne Wiest's mother character is forced to wade through terrible, stereotypical dialogue. And there's all the other stuff - the California setting, the ridiculous pop soundtrack, the fashions no one has ever worn except in teen movies. Paint every box marked with a 5 red, and you'll have a teen movie in no time at all.
But wonderful things slip in around the bizarre and the cynical, and they're what redeem The Lost Boys. Having the younger sibling and his dorky friends act a few years younger than they look means that the characters come across not as the usual sarcasm-heavy, precocious movie tweens, but actual idiot kids taking actual idiot joy in activities like vampire-proofing their house. The popular kids might be murderous children of the night, but they're having a blast instead of moping around feeling sorry for themselves, or learning valuable life-lessons. The grandfather character's eccentricities are delightfully off-kilter; the closet filled with taxidermied animals is not a first-act gun, but just one of the film's many charming little riders.
This is not to say that The Lost Boys is a perfect movie, or a perfect teen movie, or a perfect vampire movie. Deep beneath the film's surface run the parallel undercurrents of fascination and revulsion with teenage culture that so often characterize such films. Hollywood has a long track-record of regarding teenagers with a combination of envy and dread, objectifying their bodies and their interests while simultaneously commenting ironically, even angrily, on how they behave. Teenagers become hormone-addled agents of chaos in these movies, sociopathic snake-hipped lust-monkeys without either knowledge of or interest in the larger issues of life. And these movies idealize this behavior, hold it out for us to desire and condemn with the same degree of prurient fascination. "Isn't it horrible? Isn't it wonderful?" these movies hiss in our ears. "Don't you wish you could have all that?"
Which is why I hate teen movies. No, I don't wish I could have that. I never have. But - and yes, this is because I'm a giant geek - overlaying genre tropes on an otherwise uninspired teen-movie surface is a game-changer for me. The Lost Boys is still an '80s teen movie, a paint-by-number story moved by these ugly undercurrents, but somehow the vampire tropism creates enough narrative upheaval to make it fresh and interesting. I shouldn't be surprised that I like it. I love Buffy, where high school is literally hell; I love Veronica Mars and its pulpy, noir-inflected take on adolescence. Syrupy morality plays about how we're all alike under the surface are boring. Make mine a vampire. (Just not, you know, that vampire.)
Monsters: Vampires! With mullets!
Mullets: Mullets! On vampires!
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Dianne Wiest's mom-character is about as doormatty as they come. Star (god, that name) is a healthy combination of all three categories.
Destroying My Childhood by Inches: Hey, an '80s teen movie I don't hate! (For the record, I also really like Heathers. As do all right-thinking people.) Childhood unaffected.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomness Spectrum Placement: Our highest (non-Jack Palance) placement yet. Lost Boys winds up firmly at the Awesome end, between the Awesome Sandwich of Helen Mirren and Jack Palance.