Analysis

Boys Beware (of Vampire Punks): Queerness in The Lost Boys

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This essay was commissioned by Anne. You can find out more about commissions here.

All vampires worth talking about are queer. While various popular works of the genre might elide it, this fact is buried in the genre’s roots. In 1816, Polidori publishes The Vampyre, a thinly veiled middle finger to abusive asshole (and coincidental bisexual) Lord Byron. In 1872, Carmilla attempts to woo a young woman. In 1897, Dracula is as possessive of his young guide Jonathan as he will later be over Mina. It begins as a history of queer predation, the dangerous seducer who must be destroyed for the good of the heteronormative family unit.

Then came Interview with the Vampire in 1976, and its take on vampires as sympathetic figures—really, really overtly queer ones—struggling with the existential dread of eternity began the process of reclaiming the creatures of the night. When it finally made its way to the big screen in 1994, vampire film would be smack dab in the middle of reinventing vampirism in the most aggressively heterosexual way possible—thank you so much for that, Francis Ford Coppola. 90s vampirism retreated from queerness, choosing instead to paint heterosexuality as forbidden rather than continuing in the vein of using vampirism to explore marginalized sexuality.

Between these fraught roots and the erasure that began in the 90s and only abated even slightly with the post-Twilight bursting of the paranormal romance bubble, there are the awkward children of the 1980s. 1983’s The Hunger cast queer icon David Bowie alongside tired predatory bisexual stereotypes; 1985’s Fright Night wrings its hands in panic at the notion of gay couples moving into suburbia and then tosses in a heartrending subplot around an implicitly queer secondary character; and then there’s 1987’s The Lost Boys, a film whose “return to Americana” script is complicated by having a gay director.

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…And the American Way

On a basic script level, The Lost Boys is something of a moral panic film. A newly divorced woman and her two sons move from Arizona to the California beach town of Santa Carla, supposed murder capital of the world. Teenager Michael ends up tangled with a group of biker punks who are secretly vampires, and it’s up to younger brother Sam to save Michael before he turns from half to full vampire.

On its surface the film uses vampirism as a metaphor for puberty—bad breath, long nails, and sleeping all day are noted signs—but if that alone were enough to sustain the film, then its climax would be more like Teen Wolf’s triumphant basketball dunking. Puberty is, after all, an inevitability. And The Lost Boys needs its predators.

Enter a young Kiefer Sutherland as the bleach-blonde David. While Michael initially crosses paths with the gang after following its only female member (fellow half-vampire Star), it’s David who acts as his primary tempter. The interactions between them absolutely drip with homoeroticism: scenes where David is present relegate Star to the edges of the screen, dialing in on tight back-and-forth shots between Michael and David as if they’re the only people in the room; when Michael unwittingly drinking David’s blood (as with everything in the 80s, the specter of AIDS hangs heavily over this scene) from a rather phallic bottle, the screen fades out Star’s face and replaces it with David’s; even their fights feel like flirtation, as David blows smoke not into Michael’s face but in a directed stream toward his lips.

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And then there are the secondary signifiers, the things meant to indicate Michael is on his way to going “wrong.” He wears a single earring, though it’s in his left ear rather than his right. The vampire-hunting Frog brothers, self-proclaimed defenders of truth, justice, and the American way, call Michael a “bloodsucker” with a vehemence more reminiscent of a different insult ending in “sucker.” Sam jumps to his brother’s defense by claiming that if he’s a vampire he’s only half—since at this point, Michael’s loyalties are divided between Star and David.

The subtext is like something out of “Boys Beware,” with the younger boys rushing to save Michael before he’s fully corrupted by David and his newly awakened vampire urges. When the head vampire is finally killed, a newly human Star and child half-vampire Laddy are joyously reunited in front of an American flag. The three of them—Michael, Star, and Laddy—make a little nuclear family unit, safely freed from the wicked influence of leather-wearing queers. Happily ever after.

…And yet.

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Sympathy for the Devil

Film is a collaborative art, and Joel Schumacher’s decisions as director guide the film to an odd place. He weaves sympathy for David in particular throughout the film, inserting glimpses of a more nuanced character in alongside the role of villain. The visuals pour far more electric chemistry into those heated looks between Michael and David than it does with the full-on foreplay between Michael and Star.

There’s plenty to work with, as Michael’s torn-between-worlds dilemma is a take on the overtly erotic threats made on Mina and Lucy in Dracula. But the visuals go beyond that, asking with every close shot of Michael’s pained expression just why he’s so scared of these feelings. Through Schumacher’s camera, the tragedy is the posturing, toxic masculinity that separates these two teens much more than the fact that they’re both men.

The film’s climax even gives a tragic grace note to David. While the other vampires in his gang die messy, bloody deaths, he looks nearly angelic; the camera lingers on Michael as he wrestles with what he’s done. When the head vampire is revealed to be not David but store owner Max, Michael whispers “this is what you were protecting,” as if he’s reached some understanding after the chance to connect has passed. The true villain wasn’t the queer punks but the straight business owner, preying on the community while hiding behind the obvious outsiders.

Still, the film can think of no other way to end but to kill its queer monsters, even if it also pokes at its own foundations. The Frog Brothers are blowhards who need saving more often than they do anything right; the film’s finale ends not with a heterosexual reunion between Star and Michael but with Michael and his family. “Even if you are a vampire,” Sam told him, “you’re still my brother.”

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Boys Lost

These choices in execution leave the film somewhat awkwardly between spaces. It refuses to hand over a simple tale of good triumphing over evil, but it also leaves queer viewers little to grasp onto—even if they are seen, the ending is the still death. Regretted, regrettable death, but hardly the triumph of the monster that literary interpretations of vampirism had already come to embrace.

Still, its coding of family acceptance was a comparative step forward to the likes of Evil Ed in Fright Night, muddied though it is by the curative element of the story. In the end, a queer reading of The Lost Boys produces nothing so much as the image of a gay artist working to reclaim his existence through a subgenre that had realized queer people exist but hadn’t thought much beyond being afraid of that fact. The embrace of its aesthetic as a more general “punk” look only doubled down on the fumbling. While the revolutionary creation of low-class punk vampires should have been a welcome counterbalance to the wealth porn of Anne Rice’s novels, in the end culture at large only successfully absorbed the general leather jacket image of a general “outsider.” If ever a movie deserved a remake with a happier ending, it’s this one.

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