Boomers, Neglect, and ‘The Lost Boys’ at 25

The Emerson boys’ plight and their tight kinship form the lasting appeal of Joel Schumacher’s gem, The Lost Boys, which this week marks 25 years since its American release.

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Missing and wretched kids abound in Santa Carla, Calif., a fictional seaside tourist trap that looks an awful lot like Santa Cruz. There are young faces on milk cartons and dumpster-diving scavengers, for starters. There’s also a marauding gang of murderous teen vampires living the idyllic dream of many an adolescent boy in the mid-'80s: No parents, no rules, loud motorcycles, and Jami Gertz. Even more emotionally stranded, though, are the new kids in town, Michael and Sam Emerson, and what engaged teen-audiences a generation ago had less to do with the brothers ability to facedown these bloodsuckers, and more to do with improbably surviving one of the worst single-mothers in popular eighties cinema.

The Emerson boys’ plight and their tight kinship form the lasting appeal of Joel Schumacher’s gem, The Lost Boys, which this week marks 25 years since its American release. Schumacher had his period-piece quirks, for sure, as The Lost Boys was his second film in a row to include a long-locked, brass-instrument blowing beefcake. And while nothing yells '80s quite like a mullet and a saxophone-solo, The Lost Boys shines a light on a darker sign of the times: Self-obsessed divorced parents and their abandoned kids, left vulnerable to fall into any number of dangerous situations.

The film begins with a recently single and vaguely hippy-ish Lucy moving her sons from Phoenix to Santa Carla. Despite allusions made to her ex-husband being a Yuppie – how awful -we’re told little about the circumstances that allowed Lucy to take her boys 700 miles away from their father. “You’re the only woman I ever knew who didn’t improve her situation by getting a divorce,” Lucy’s father says, and as baffling an observation as this is Lucy’s response may be even more vexing. “A big legal war wasn’t going to improve anyone’s situation.” And while divorce battles are certainly no fun, a little child support may have helped keep her from moving her kids to a violent town rife with gang-killings and mysterious disappearances in the middle of their adolescence.

Lucy is the embodiment of a specific type of single Boomer mother, one who mistakes passivity and willful victimization – the refusal to fight for her sons’ security – for an off-brand of free-spirited rebellion against the prevailing shift towards materialism. In short, Lucy is a fearful narcissist masquerading as a spiritually evolved human being, and not even the great Dianne Wiest can save her. As soon as her family arrives in Santa Clara, Lucy immediately begins a job/manhunt that leaves Michael and Sam fending for themselves.

And they do. And they’re impressively self-sufficient and forward moving. Michael goes after Gertz’s Star, who has an unclear relationship with head vamp, David. For Michael, an entanglement with this world is ill advised but the gang is fun, dangerous, and exhilarating. They are also strong, rule-bound, and therefore more functional than Michael’s own home. Sure, David and his crew are narcissists, too, but after they victimize you they confer upon you absolute power and eternal brotherhood. This is an understandably sweet deal for a kid who is feeling uprooted, abandoned, and alone. Young Sam, meanwhile, befriends a couple of comic book aficionados, the Frog Brothers, who forewarn him about the dark realities of life in his new town. As Michael exhibits increasingly bizarre and violent behavior, Sam becomes more and more concerned, and the Frog Brothers confirm his worst fears: Michael’s halfway to becoming a vampire. During all of this, Lucy works, a necessity, and begins to date her boss, Max, yet another Yuppie she desperately seeks approval from. And typically self-centered, Lucy can’t see what’s happening to her kids. She minimizes Sam’s concerns about Michael, and whines to both sons that they are blowing her chances with Max without paying any heed to their warnings that this Max, who she has now invited into her home, may not be so great. Or even human, for that matter.

For his part, Schumacher succeeds in directing a demonstrative and almost disarmingly tender relationship between Michael and Sam that suggests brothers who have been through a lot together. Schumacher has long thrived on his casting of young, charismatic, and essentially unknown actors, and in this regard The Lost Boys is his greatest triumph. Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland do well as Michael and David, respectively, but the film rides squarely on the shoulders of Corey Haim, a precocious young actor who left behind a few memorable performances. Haim single-handedly keeps the show going here, especially when it devolves into standard garlic-necklace and holy water fare, and he’s reason alone to revisit the picture.

As for Lucy, she remains slow on the take to the end. Eager to prevent the blood-spilling that will likely come from a full-on vampire hunt, Haim’s Sam pleads with his mother to listen, absolutely desperate for her help. Despite increasing evidence that there may very well be a vampire problem in her home, Lucy won’t stand for it. “I don’t believe this,” she whines. “I’m going to see Max tonight and you’re trying to ruin it for me!” Sam, once again let down, returns to the Frog Brothers with the bad news. “Guys, we’re on our own,” he says, resignedly. And like countless other war-orphans of the eighties, they weren’t the only ones.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.