The Lost Boys paired vampire camp with real teenage fears

The Lost Boys’ poster made the prospect of becoming an undead creature of the night pretty attractive: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” But the movie’s story is full of teenage terrors: an older sibling in the grips of addiction, divorced parents, starting over in a strange new place, and contending with adults who won’t listen to your real, valid teenage problems.

Released in 1987, The Lost Boys isn’t particularly terrifying as a horror film. With its gaudily dressed vampires and long-flowing mullets — plus its iconic, extremely sweaty saxophone man — it reads more camp than straight horror three decades later. And despite its R rating, it’s fairly tame. Its single sex scene is pretty chaste and the film’s gore is limited to gushes of blood from dying vampires.

The Lost Boys succeeds as an enduring piece of vampire fiction because of its stars, with Kiefer Sutherland standing out as vampire gang leader David, and the strong bones of its story. In that story, recently divorced single mom Lucy (Dianne Wiest) moves to the fictional Southern California town of Santa Carla, “the murder capital of the world,” the film tells us, with her teenage sons, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim). The displaced family moves in with Lucy’s dad, an eccentric taxidermist known only as Grandpa.

Corey Haim and Jason Patric as Sam and Michael in The Lost Boys Image: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

As they settle into the town, which appears to consist primarily of a densely trafficked beach boardwalk, Lucy gets a job (and a potential boyfriend) at a video rental store, while Michael and Sam seek new friends — Michael’s comes in the form of a group of young vampires, while Sam bonds with comic book store geeks Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan Frog (Jamison Newlander). When Michael falls for Star (Jami Gertz), a seductive vampire in the making and apparent partner of David, peer pressure compels him to become a vampire himself.

Opposite Michael’s path, Sam throws in with the Frog brothers, who warn the new kid in town that Santa Carla’s whole murder-capital-of-the-world problem stems from a nest of vampires. The Lost Boys doesn’t shy away from established vampire fiction with the Frog brothers; they use horror comic books as a field manual to identify and kill vampires. (Refreshingly, unlike far too many modern zombie genre stories, which refuse to use the word “zombie” at all, vampire fiction isn’t afraid of calling its monsters what they are.)

While Michael’s story of becoming bewitched by both Star and David is at the center of the film’s story, The Lost Boys is also Sam’s story of watching his brother slip into a metaphorical addiction during the “just say no” era of the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. It’s also a story set during an era of skyrocketing divorce rates; The Lost Boys plays masterfully on the fear of watching your parents split and the inevitable replacement father figure coming into the picture.

Brooke McCarter, Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Wirth, Alex Winter in The Lost Boys Photo: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Sutherland and Patric hold The Lost Boys together as rivals ostensibly competing for Star. As David, Sutherland channels Billy Idol as a spiky trickster, making Michael hallucinate that he’s eating worms and maggots — when, in reality, he’s eating Chinese takeout — before David presents him with a taste of real vampire’s blood. As Michael, Patric plays it both cool and disaffected, but also earnest in his love for Star and terrified of his new vampire powers. There are strong set-pieces involving the two male leads, including a moment where David and his vampire gang convince Michael to hang out underneath a moving train, compelling Michael to let go and embrace his ability to fly. It’s the movie’s strongest allusion to its inspiration, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Despite strong performances and great character twists, The Lost Boys rushes toward its ending in clumsy and unsatisfying ways. Dianne Wiest’s Lucy has too little to do outside of reacting to the men in the film, and Grandpa seems to have much more going on than the film reveals. Its 98-minute run time needed a little more time to breathe.

But The Lost Boys, much like ’80s kid-heroism movies E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies, is about its young people. As an oft-campy time capsule of ’80s-era hopes and fears, it will never get old.

The Lost Boys is currently streaming on Max.