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Fangs For The Memories: The Lost Boys And The Infantilization Of The Vampire
Jeremy Allen , July 26th, 2017 12:26

Jeremy Allen looks back at the history of the vampire film and analyses one of the genre's most influential entries, Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys. And, no, we haven't used that headline already.

The vampire as we know it is unrecognisable from the folkloric apparitions of Eastern Europe that grew up over a time long before Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodoxy took hold. “An impressive body of lore dealing with powerful vampire-like creatures dates back to ancient and primitive times,” according to the academic A. Asbjørn Jon in his Vampire Evolution paper - and such legends were prevalent amongst societies that were “pre-industrial, pre-Christian and primarily illiterate”. According to Jon, these creatures usually manifested as “plump peasant[s] living within a rural community”, a far cry from the gaunt, beautiful, etiolated eidolons that present themselves on the big screen in the 21st century. The vampire has evolved to reflect the fears and prejudices of the age, becoming less remote and phantasmagorical, and in many ways more childlike as time has worn on.

Indeed the most radical transformation of the vampire in recent history can be traced to Joel Schumacher The Lost Boys, an inadvertent recasting of the parameters, where a gamble on casting some unknown teenagers reshaped an entire genre. If vampire folklore has played on the clandestine fears of society, then in 1987, all a teenager had to worry about was moving into a house without a television. Upon arriving in Santa Carla, the sybaritic seaside setting of the picture, Michael and Sam Emerson are horrified to discover Grandpa doesn’t own a set.

“Have you seen a TV, Mike?” asks the younger brother Sam, played by Corey Haim. “Do you know what it means when there's no TV? No MTV. ”

Home entertainment is thin on the ground in Santa Carla, and outside seems hostile too. When Sam asks Grandpa if it’s true what they say about it being the murder capital of the world, his elder doesn’t pull any punches: “If all the corpses buried around here were to stand up all at once we'd have one hell of a population problem”. Santa Carla, shot on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on the northern edge of Monterey Bay, is crawling with vampires (the Santa Cruz tourist board apparently objected to the use of the name as they didn’t want the adverse publicity).

Sam goes exploring and finds a comic store, and after complaining to the teenage proprietors about the city’s stench, he sets about verbally rearranging the Superman comics, earning begrudging respect. It’s becoming clear that Sam is on the hipster / geek continuum, and we also soon learn that Edgar and Alan Frog are not all they appear to be; comic book vendors by day, at night they’re vampire slayers (allegedly). Edgar, played by the other Corey (Feldman) in splittertarn camouflage and candy red headband, and Alan in sleeveless Airbourne t-shirt, are a far cry from Peter Cushing’s dashing and impeccably mannered Dr. Van Helsing from the Hammer pictures. (The Frog Brothers might have been a world away from Cushing, but they wouldn’t have made him turn in his Canterbury plot, unlike 2004’s Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale in a CGI monstrosity of a movie with a cringeworthy fantasy plot arbitrarily stealing from Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde along the way; a contender for worst film ever made).

The brothers offer Sam a comic called “Vampires Everywhere!” to take home with him. He protests but they insist that it might save his life. The comic book is full of the usual Stokerian apotropaics: crucifixes, rosaries, holy water, garlic around the neck to protect one’s dreams etc. To kill a vampire you must drive a stake through the heart, and then there’s the stuff about the drinking of blood, the having no reflection, the business of being invited in…

Not all of the shibboleths come from Bram Stoker’s Dracula though: death by sunlight first occurred at the conclusion of the groundbreaking German feature Nosferatu, and it clearly made quite an impression on viewers, becoming essential vampiric movie-lore. Nosferatu was a faithful visual rendition of the 1897 epistolary novel but for some name changes: Dracula becomes Count Orlok; Mina Harker becomes Ellen Hutter, and so on. Certainly the wool wasn’t pulled over the eyes of the courts, who ordered all of Prana Pictures’ copies to be destroyed after Stoker’s estate sued in the 1920s. The studio was forced to declare bankruptcy and wind up its business after just one outing. Thankfully a few reels got away and were restored at a later date, and attitudes regarding what constitutes plagiarism changed dramatically. Nosferatu, with its chiaroscuro trickery and stunning makeup, is rightly regarded as a seminal masterpiece with nearly all movies of the genre borrowing from it. Francis Ford Coppola acknowledged as much in his 1991 version of Dracula, with scenes from the 1922 picture appearing on the big screen in homage, when Gary Oldman’s Count goes with Winona Ryder’s Mina to the cinema.

The Emersons’ arrival in Santa Carla subverts the original story, as they’re the strangers in town rather than the exotic nightstalkers. In Stoker’s Britain - which his native Ireland was a part of at the time - everything is present and correct, and anything beyond its monarchical realm is regarded as a deviation from Victorian Christian values. As Jonathan Harker traverses through the Carpathian Mountains to meet the Count for the first time, an eastern European Romani woman warns that evil awaits, but that it can’t possibly take place on England’s day of national celebration: “It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?”

“We are in Transylvania,” Dracula reminds his captive just before he sets off himself for Whitby, “and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." (Thankfully with English pluck, Harker is eventually able to escape after a torrid month sleeping with three undead bisexual vamps). Dracula sails from Transylvania to the north eastern shores of Whitby, murdering the crew on the ship he’s aboard one by one. Stoker’s fin de siècle blockbuster was published during the peak years of the British Empire at a time of high immigration, largely driven by pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. At one point Dracula pointedly claims “a stranger in a strange land, he is no one”, sounding not unlike our incumbent Prime Minister. Dracula is keen to pitch himself as an outsider, living on the fringes of society - albeit in a massive castle - and you suspect a lot of that is down to his appearance. The count isn’t a louche, comely strapling with a sixpack and cool bed hair.

“His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”

Later the Count transmogrifies “as if his youth had been half restored [my italics],” although he’s still no oil painting - even if Stoker’s description makes him sound just like an oil painting: “For the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey. The cheeks were fuller, and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath. The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck.”

After the otherworldly Orlok, whose frightening visage was a meticulous and uncanny representation of Stoker’s description, the next Count of note on the big screen was Bela Lugosi, an Austro-Hungarian stage actor approaching 50. The imposing six footer had already donned the cape and fangs on Broadway when he took the lead role in the “talkie” version of Dracula, released in 1931. Lugosi laid down the aesthetic blueprint for male vampires in film for the next half century. 58-year-old Austrian-born Francis Lederer, a statuesque 6 ft 2, maintained the slick-haired eastern European nobleman with the exotic twang in 1958’s Return of Dracula. The same year, a younger man in his mid-30s, a strong and silent Englishman standing at 6 ft 5”, began making the role his own, starring in Dracula (or Horror of Dracula in the US). Curiously Christopher Lee, in his second outing as Dracula: Prince of Darkness in 1965, refused to say any of the lines, having read the awful script. He hissed at the camera instead, and his mute, mysterious and serpentine Count became perhaps his most terrifying of all. Watch a YouTube montage of Lee approaching his female victims and it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the darkly sexual intent as he stealthily approaches, silent and mesmeric, before the violation takes place. He’s powerful and imposing, slightly ungainly and yet magnetic, but never pretty. His replacement in 1960’s The Brides of Dracula was. David Peel’s camp libertine Baron Meinster had nothing of Lee’s sinister presence, and Peel soon quit the acting business altogether to sell antiques.

Christopher Lee played Dracula nine times over the years, and Peter Cushing reprised the role of Van Helsing five times, the last time in the so-so kung-fu crossover movie The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, and he also took similar roles, like General Von Spielsdorf in The Vampire Lovers (1970), as vampire films entered their faintly ridiculous erotic lesbian phase. To suggest sapphic vampire pictures are a subgenre is a misunderstanding though - the inspiration was provided by a book that predated Dracula by 26 years and was undoubtedly an influence on Stoker, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. The homoerotic undertones of 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter are startling, in what is supposedly a sequel to Lugosi’s Dracula. Cult directors like Jean Rollin made a career out of Carmilla, and the lesbian vampire genre even went mainstream in 1983’s The Hunger, a caliginous and grotesque pantomime with plenty of crimson and a cool soundtrack, starring Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve (and David Bowie of course). This promotion of female homosexually might have been considered laudable and certainly subversive for the times, though the scenarios in such films, soft focus, soft porn simulacrums of pictures made by their concomitant harder porn contemporaries, were almost entirely about male gratification.

So to briefly recap, until the mid-80s, vampire films were mostly concerned with middle-aged noblemen of the night suckling on the blood of younger women, and young vampiric women sucking on other young women, but 1987 presented a fork in the road, and director Joel Schumacher, who’d just had a massive hit with Saint Elmo’s Fire, crossed the rubicon. The film’s title was a reference to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, with the Lost Boys of Neverland, a tribe of children who fall out of their prams when the nurse isn’t looking. The cast was supposed to be much younger than it ended up being, while the film was pitched as a goofball comedy in the style of The Goonies.

“We really didn't know what we were doing then!” Schumacher told The Hollywood Interview in 2012. “We made it up as we went along. The studio was incredibly patient and supportive considering they'd never heard of Kiefer Sutherland, or Jason Patric, or Jami Gertz or Corey Haim. It was another big chance taken by a studio. We were very lucky. A lot of people at the studio didn't think you could mix horror and humour.”

Turning “a sort of a cutesy ‘G’-rated movie aimed at young kids” into a baroque comedy horror for teens would begin a seismic shift in the way nearly all vampire pictures were made in future, with the debonair, sexually sadistic European older gent consigned to history in favour of franchises of impossibly good looking young Americans with perfect Mormon smiles and beautiful skin and hair. The Lost Boys certainly wasn’t the first movie to feature hip young high schoolers in a comedy horror - Fright Night from 1985 pitches a popular student against a handsome vampire who’s moved next door, although Chris Sarandon was still in his mid-40s at that time. Watch Fright Night again and you’ll feel uncomfortable with the notion that Sarandon’s Jay Dee might actually be a paedophile as well as a murderer.

What The Lost Boys did though was take a gang of handsome young reprobate actors and models and turned them into louche, nightstalking gods, and all under the classic, watchful gaze of Michael Chapman, the cinematographer for the Scorsese / De Niro pictures Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, the beautifully shot Carl Reiner / Steve Martin comedies The Man With Two Brainsand Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, as well as the classic 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As well as looking great, The Lost Boys had it all: motorbike chases, a giant Big Dipper, gothic flasks of crimson blood, noodles that turn into worms, a cave with a giant mural of Jim Morrison, a hip soundtrack (sans creepy “sax man”), exploding stereos, a cabal of vampires who fly out of trees and tear their victims brains out soundtracked to Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’, a beautiful Alaskan Malamute called Nanook, and so on. The whole ride had a visceral impact on teenagers at the time, of which I was one, and it made you want to grow stubble, sleep all day and not care about your bad breath. Despite the fact it has remained one of my favourite films - partly because of the memories it invokes when I watch it - there’s no doubting its impact on the direction of vampire films.

Hot on The Lost Boys heels came Near Dark (1987), a tenebrous Katherine Bigelow picture set in the dirty south, full of hot dust, hot lust and vampires who look even more like rock stars. The gaunt, older Lance Henriksen is a spit of Keith Richards, and even Bill Pullman somehow looks like an undead Julian Casablancas. Like Laddie Thompson in The Lost Boys and later Claudia in 1994’s Interview With The Vampire, there’s a child character who is turned before adolescence. Homer smokes and shoots people, but he’s cursed to walk the earth for eternity (or until he gets fried by the sunlight) having never experienced full sexual potency.

Suddenly Dracula is not nemesis enough, vampires now have to come in gangs, and the more chiselled or nubile the better. Buffy the Vampire Slayer bombed at the cinema but was turned into an incredibly successful TV franchise combining vampire comedy and horror. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With The Vampire were big summer hits with A list ensemble casts. ER’s George Clooney was introduced to cinema audiences in the preposterous Romero-homage From Dusk Til Dawn, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Blade starts with an illegal rave where the sprinklers fire blood onto a dancefloor of writhing vampires, and Wesley Snipes became the vampire action sub genre’s first credible black lead (1972’s blaxploitation thriller Blacula blazed trails of course, but wasn’t particularly good). Meanwhile Anne Rice’s remarkably successful Vampire Chronicles would inspire other literary sagas, and you and I both knew we wouldn’t get through this article without mentioning The Twilight Saga - four books published between 2005 and 2008 that spawned the hugely successful film franchise, making stars out of its leads, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.

“It definitely laid the groundwork for Twilight,” says Cigarette Burns’ Josh Saco, who will be showing a special 30th anniversary screening of The Lost Boys at Regents Street Cinema, London in August. “Schumacher picking pretty boy members of the brat pack was a definite change of direction. It follows that lineage of movies like Fright Night, Salem's Lot and The Monster Squad that takes The Goonies recipe and darkens it. It's über-80s legacy is undeniable, and über-80s is all about impossibly good looking high school students who are so much cooler than you. And then you get Twilight.”

The first Twilight movie isn’t quite as awful as you might imagine it to if you haven’t watched it, but it’s difficult to see what it has to do with vampires. Edward Cullen is less incubus, more emo übermench, able to stop speeding vehicles with his bare hands, read people’s minds and clatter baseballs into orbit whilst listening to his favourite band Muse. Like Dracula he’s an outsider, but in a stroppy, misunderstood, teenage kind of way. "Your mood swings are kinda giving me whiplash", complains his soon-to-be human girlfriend Bella Swan, and he flicks his sexy Jedward hair in disdain. Soon they will attempt interspecial love, because pale and interesting Edward is a nice vampire who only drinks the blood of dead woodland animals while Debussy plays in the background. Bella is just as self-obsessed; “I tell you I can read minds and you think there's something wrong with you,” admonishes Edward at one point. Christopher Lee’s Dracula was never emotional or moody or co-dependant, he just wanted to defile and drink dry a random woman and sleep it off in his coffin.

“It's all about the cheapening of the genre, or what some might say is broadening its appeal,” says Saco. “The younger the vampire the lower the rating, and then you can get the kids through the door. The horror genre goes through phases and the days of hard horror banking are theoretically behind us. So we go for glam horror, Twilight: $393m at the box office, or cerebral horror: Let the Right One In, $11m at the box office.”

Let The Right One In (2009), or Låt den rätte komma in in its original Swedish, takes the infantilization of the vampire to its logical conclusion, by casting Lina Leandersson, a 12-year-old girl, in the lead role. Vampire Eli forms a bond with another 12-year-old, Oskar, who is being bullied at his suburban Stockholm school. “It's such a pure story about childhood fears,” says Saco, “and all children at some point want a monster to be their friend.” Austere and atmospheric, eschewing special effects for bleakness and beauty, Let The Right One In subverts the genre simply by rejecting its usual tropes and cliches. It’s not just a brilliant vampire film, it’s a brilliant film full stop.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014) subverts too by being caustically funny. The New Zealand-made mockumentary, directed by comedians Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (he of Flight of the Concords fame), follows the lives of four vampires sharing a flat and the woes that accompany such an arrangement. Outside of the flat, they’re unable to get into the local nightclub because the bouncers won’t invite them in, and they keep getting into fights with the local werewolves, spoofing the Underworld series (though with slightly less sheen and considerably less budget). One character, Jacqueline, is desperate to be turned, and has spent the last four years doing chores for one of the vampires in the hope he’ll one day bring her in from the cold and grant her eternal life. “It’s just a homoerotic dick-biting club and I'm here ironing their frills,” she complains. In another scene, the vampires invite some potential victims around to their house for dinner, and serve up two tins of cold spaghetti. “Please Nick, eat some bisgetti”, says the vampire Deacon, still using an infantile word from his childhood. A few moments later he declares “I didn’t realise you enjoyed eating worms, Nick!” - the character jumps up from the table in surprise, although there’s no hint of trompe l'oeil. Cut to a talking head of Deacon telling the camera, “We stole that idea from The Lost Boys but I put a twist on it.” The next shot cuts back to the dinner table where Deacon stands and boldly asks, “Nick, how does it feel having a snake for a penis?”

In 2017 vampires are everywhere, but the more of them there are, the more identikit they become, and the fewer surprises there seem to be on offer. One suspects there are few vampire flicks being made right now that are likely to tempt us to the cinema, although they might pass the time on TV. Or, if you’re like Grandpa, just check the listings and don’t bother with the telly.

“Read the TV guide, you don't need a TV.”

An archival 35mm print of The Lost Boys will be shown at Regent Street Cinema on August 19th as part of a 30th anniversary screening by Cigarette Burns (including a Q&A with The Story Of The Lost Boys author Paul Davis)