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30 Years Ago, The Lost Boys Introduced Me to Queer Cinema

Warner Bros.

Over the years, my background in studying film has cultivated my memory into a well-curated database of movies. My lists, filed by theory and genre, include films that run the gamut, from the elite to the avant garde. If someone were to ask what I would recommend for teaching a class on editing and auteur theory, I would suggest Citizen Kane (1941). If the question were about framing or depth, my first inclination would be The Searchers (1956). Need something on the emotional resonance of sustained montage? Easy: Battleship Potemkin (1925). And, if you ever wanted to properly dissect a film’s clear and unabashed look into queer culture, then look no further than the “Kiefer Sutherland sporting a leather jacket and fangs” late 80s classic, The Lost Boys.

There are many secrets I’ve kept to myself over the years, and when I look back on those secrets now, I realize they all have to do with sex. Growing up in a Puerto Rican/Catholic household, there were certain parameters to navigating everyday life. Although my family took precautions to filter what I learned (and when) regarding sexuality, it’s safe to say that most of it was blatantly unsuccessful—though it did succeed in arousing my curiosity about the world outside of the bubble they had erected around my childhood. And, fortunately for me, they did allow one seemingly innocuous movie to slip through the cracks.

Which is why, at 9 years old, The Lost Boys was the queerest movie I had ever seen and I loved the ever-loving hell out of it.

The reason I’ve now decided to fly my fang flag high is twofold: to bring awareness to a film which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and, more importantly, to explain how The Lost Boys came to represent one of my earliest forays into queer cinema.

Ask anyone who studies film: the late ‘80s was an awfully bizarre time for sexuality in movies. The best way to describe American culture at the time is as a kind of shapeless limbo between women’s blazers (with shoulder pads) and C + C Music Factory. Couple that with the fact that my personal introduction into puberty was a slow, painful slog through musty armpits and the bucket of bees I seemingly swallowed whenever girls were around, and you can start to see why such a movie might leave a lasting imprint on me. Before the Basic Instinct crotch-shot or Madonna’s Sex book, there were two films that made me experience myself as a living, breathing sexual creature. One was Weird Science—and the other one featured vampiric glamour boys, rocking earrings and leather jackets.

Up until that point, my exposure to vampires in film and literature was rather limited (this was before Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview with a Vampire, two films which reinvigorated—and reinvented, for some—the vampire as a hyper-sexualized creature in Western cinema). I had very little that would serve as a solid reference for the vampire; the essence of the creature was probably best matched in Fright Night which, at the very least, retained its origins in horror. Unfortunately, movies like Once Bitten and the The Vampire’s Kiss, save for some early Nicolas Cage antics in the latter, were barely watchable. American films tended to neuter the vampire. Even in their more classic portrayals—Bela Lugosi’s titular films Dracula and Nosferatu—the vampire was very much “other” in the sense that they were not truly men, serving instead as evil creatures. Lugosi’s charm and gravitas would definitely influence the look and stature of the vampire, even to this day, but he lacked the brooding sexuality that would become the staple of True Blood or the Twilight movies.

At least, that’s what I originally thought.

In reality, the vampire has always represented a relative “other-ness” that is very much in line with queer culture. If one were to look back at Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula, it would be easy to read him as a strictly hetero-normative antagonist for our characters to eventually conquer. Even within its literary origins, Dracula and his male counterparts seem to possess a purely “as advertised” clash of good vs. evil. For the women caught in between these two figures, Dracula is the dark romance for which gothic literature is known.

Yet within this rather specific power dynamic of man vs. predator (or purity vs. damnation), what often gets overlooked is the queer subtext of its characters. Be it in its archetypes or the relationships held by its characters, Dracula has always been a subverted narrative of the male will attempting to overcome a primal, homogeneous hunger. Even in appearance, Dracula stands as a queer symbol manifested to threaten other male characters in the story. When we first come to meet Dracula in Stoker’s classic novel, Harker’s slow reveal of his hosts’ odd features lends itself to a primarily intimate and detailed study of the man’s face.

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.

The moment Dracula saves Harker, demanding that he “belongs to me,” can be read as evidence that Dracula’s insistence to keep him alive is mainly due to his captive’s specific skill set (i.e. the deeds Dracula needs completed before his trip across the sea). But if viewed through the lens of queer theory, the obvious coupling of the two characters, and their their intertwined fates, sets both Harker and Dracula closer to a vastly more intimate relationship than what is on the page. In Lugosi’s portrayal, the relationships and interrelationships of its male characters are what carry the narrative. The male vampire hunters attempt to unite in order to protect Mina from Dracula’s corruption can be seen as male characters’ defense against a threat upon their sexuality. They aren’t so much fighting over the souls of the damsels (both Lucy and Mina in the original text), but against the queerness of Dracula’s influence.

Which leads me back to the first time I saw The Lost Boys. Whereas there was a clear subversion of queer themes within the earlier film and the classic story, I found there was nothing really subverted in The Lost Boys at all. At 9 years old I watched it from start to finish, on loop, because everything was on the table; no stone was left unturned. Even though I lacked the proper vocabulary and insight to give these feelings a name, the characters, plot, setting, and dialogue oozed allusions to queer culture. Hell, even the catchy theme song—“Cry Little Sister” by Gerard McMahon, which boasts such lyrics as “Unchain me sister/Love is with your brother”—leaves very little to the imagination.

The vampires in the film were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Instead of ghoulish recluses, they walked amongst the humans of Santa Clara. Both brothers, Michael and Sam, moved to the town as a support for their mother—but what Michael finds instead is an attraction to Star, a young woman he spots on the boardwalk during the “I Still Believe” scene (for those who miss shirtless saxophone solos, just Youtube it). It’s this attraction that eventually leads Michael to be initiated into a vampire biker gang led by David (a young Kiefer Sutherland).

Though Michael’s initial coercion stemmed from his attraction to Star, in this moment he gives himself—and is left changed by—his attraction to the lost boys lifestyle (“Lost Boys” being an allusion to the clan of boys in Peter Pan who never wanted to grow up, and despised every girl except a fairy). The scene where David tells Michael to “Let go” because “You’re one of us” is followed by an odd sequence where Michael seems to be flying, or free-falling, landing on his bed a changed man.

The relationship of Michael to these outlying, roguish men is the central focus of the entire film. We even find out later that Star is not so much a love interest for David but rather someone he has decided to use as a sexual lure: she serves as “bait” not only to ensnare Michael, but to fulfill his transformation upon her death. In other words, the only way Michael can truly become a “lost boy” is by literally killing his heterosexual urges, a theory which is alluded to during his initiation in the lost boys’ den. After drinking the bottle of blood, Michael falls into a trance. We see Star’s superimposed face peering back at him, which hints at his attraction for her. She is quickly replaced by an image of David’s smiling face, as he seductively whispers Michael’s name over and over.

This was as shocking to me at 9 years old as it is hilarious to me now. Unlike the original Dracula, there is very little subtext here. The lost boys themselves, while wild and savage, were free. Despite their wild antics, the townsfolk seem to turn a blind eye to their existence. A scene that especially stands out is when Michael’s younger brother finds out he has been turned into a vampire. His initial reaction is to threaten to “tell mom,” as if Michael’s secret was something he could “out.”

Regardless of how much of  a guilty pleasure it is, The Lost Boys isn’t without its faults. The goofiness of some scenes doesn’t always gel with its horror elements, and certain scenes—if dissected through queer theory—can be quite problematic. For instance, I found it quite disturbing that Michael unsuccessfully tries to prey on his younger brother while he bathes—an odd allusion to homophobic stereotypes that, while played for laughs, only complicates the subtext. Likewise, the fact that Michael reverts back to his former self after the lost boys (and their secret “Vamp Daddy”) are destroyed can be seen as a disturbing answer to “cure” him of their influence. The only thing I can cite to offset those types of narratives is that the film was marketed as a horror/comedy directed by Joel Schumacher, years before he slapped nipples on a Batman and called it art.

I, for one, still secretly (and now, not so secretly) adore this movie. Schumacher, an openly gay director and screenwriter, took on the film when it lost its original director. The original concept for The Lost Boys was to be grounded in Horror, but many believe that Schumacher’s decision to insert some camp and humor did wonders for the cult following the movie has garnered. Personally, I think that what I saw 30 years ago is still worth dedicating an entire film class to, watching and analyzing it, scene by scene.

Come for the homoerotic subtext, stay for the shirtless saxophonist.