The Lost Boys’ Subtly Radical Vision of Family

The 1987 vampire horror-comedy debuted at a time when America was preoccupied with the evolution of traditional kinship bonds.

Warner Bros.

Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys—which turns 30 years old this week—has, in some respects, the very things you’d want from a 1980s horror-comedy: big-haired vampires, noisy motorcycles, big-haired vampires riding noisy motorcycles, Corey Feldman. True to ’80s form, the film embraces some of the best excesses of American popular culture, employing ridiculous blood baths and an over-the-top rock-infused soundtrack as it depicts a family’s struggle to fight the small army of leather-wearing teenage demons swarming their town.

But The Lost Boys offers much more than style, nostalgia, and genre thrills. At its core, even three decades later, Schumacher’s film is a remarkably prescient tale that mines the complexities of kinship. The movie’s portrayal of a seemingly wayward mother and her adolescent sons debuted at a time when many Americans feared the deterioration of traditional dynamics in the home—between parent and child, husband and wife. More so than the other films of its era, The Lost Boys subtly challenged dominant cultural expectations that saw the nuclear family as a social and moral ideal.

The movie begins with Lucy Emerson (Dianne Wiest), a newly divorced recovering hippie, moving with her sons, Michael and Sam (Jason Patric and Corey Haim), to the fictional California town of Santa Carla to live with her father, Grandpa (Barnard Hughes). Inauspicious signs abound from the start. Several young people have gone missing in Santa Carla, and Michael soon becomes obsessed with the mysterious Star (Jami Gertz), who hangs out with a gang of bloodsuckers helmed by David (Kiefer Sutherland). Sam eventually partners up with the vampire-killers Edgar and Alan Frog (Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to save his older brother from the undead. In other words, The Lost Boys is a tale of feuding families: the Emerson clan on the one hand, and David’s carnivorous squad on the other.

While the story might sound straightforward enough, it’s worth adding a bit of historical context. The Lost Boys was released amid a new wave of American conservatism that had begun gaining momentum near the end of the ’70s. Of particular note was the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell’s organization, the Moral Majority, which marshaled right-wing Christians as a political force for the first time against abortion, homosexuality, and other supposed social ills. The group sought to protect American “family values” (a term now primarily associated with the Christian right) after what it saw as the rise of a destructive social liberalism in the previous decade. The Moral Majority threw its full weight behind Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, with some observers crediting the group with the win.

The Lost Boys proffers a vision at odds with the prevailing socio-political narratives of the Reagan era. The Emersons, most obviously, don’t square with the long-held conviction—then, but also now—that the best kind of family is the nuclear family: a man and a woman, who are married, raising their biological children together. Rather than centering this kind of arrangement, as many films of the decade did, The Lost Boys provides a more empathetic rendering of the atypical Emerson clan (and, later, even many of the vampires). The Emersons are broke, sure, but they’re not exactly falling apart as their family structure shifts. Instead, everyone works hard to find stability in their new life, with Lucy, whose role as matriarch is taken as a given, hustling to find a new job, alongside her older son.

Even compared to other ’80s movies, The Lost Boys stood out. By the end of the decade, the film critic Emanuel Levy notes, the nuclear family had suddenly resurfaced on the big screen after a decline in portrayals in previous years. “In the late 1980s, the American cinema no longer accentuates male camaraderie, individual heroism, and adventurism,” he writes. “Rather, a stronger emphasis is placed on group structures (marriage and family) and traditional values (domesticity), reflecting the Reagan era’s ‘upbeat’ philosophy.” Unlike some of its contemporaries—like 1984’s Sixteen Candles or 1987’s Fatal Attraction—Schumacher’s movie exposed American viewers to a different moral landscape, one that didn’t uncritically latch onto the accepted household set-up. (Notably, America’s top-grossing film of 1987, Three Men and a Baby, also bucked kinship norms.)

The Lost Boys deals with the theme of family, and how it bears on adolescence, in other, harder-to-miss ways: vampires, and lots of blood. The embattled Michael is caught in a tug-of-war between his biological (or “blood”) family and the sort of “chosen” family that has formed around the lead vampire David and his ilk. “Michael, you’re one of us. Let go,” David says shortly after Michael drinks what turns out to be some of David’s blood from a bejeweled bottle, a move that begins to convert Michael into a half-vampire. The film’s title, which is a reference to characters in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, defies clear interpretation. Are the lost boys supposed to be Michael and Sam? Or the vampires? And if it’s the latter, what precisely makes them lost? Is it their status as undead beings—or the fact that they don’t conform to a conventional family arrangement? The countercultural reading isn’t a stretch: Schumacher has said that The Lost Boys “is, in a way, about the fear we have of the Other—those who live outside of the mainstream.”

The Lost Boys hinges on repudiations and reversals of the nuclear family structure, with perhaps the best example coming from the character of Max (Edward Herrmann). Tall and bookish, he’s Lucy’s love interest, favorably observing throughout the film that Lucy has a “generous nature” and is a “protecting mother.” Later on, during the final balletic, bloody showdown, it’s revealed why Max has been laying on the gendered remarks so thick: He’s the head vampire, on the hunt for that primordial symbol of domesticity—a mother for his boys. “It was all going to be so perfect, Lucy. Just like one big, happy family. Your boys and my boys,” Max says, half-jokingly. To which Edgar replies, so very perfectly: “Great! The bloodsucking Brady Bunch!” This line pokes at some of the decade’s wildly popular coming-of-age Brat Pack movies, which tend to feature some degree of suburban nostalgia for how families “used to be.”

The film’s choice of monster matters, too. In her 1995 book, Our Vampires, Ourselves, the Victorian literature scholar Nina Auerbach writes that “every age embraces the vampire it needs,” making the case that society tends to reimagine vampires into totems of actual socio-political anxieties. One of these fears in the ’80s, of course, was what many people saw as the atrophy of the American family. But by the time Reagan was in office, a related fear was already gripping the United States: that of the AIDS epidemic, which by the end of the decade would kill thousands of gay men. “Once the etiology of AIDS became clear, blood could no longer be the life; vampirism mutated from hideous appetite to nausea,” writes Auerbach. The Lost Boys doesn’t explicitly contend with AIDS, but it nonetheless dealt with blood intimately at a time when the substance was fraught with new, grim connotations.

Queerness is another vampire trope that can be read in The Lost Boys. With the exception of Star’s ambiguous relationship with the vampires, David and his band of boys seem disinterested in, and live a lifestyle devoid of, women. Sutherland, too, has nodded to the film’s apparent homoerotic undercurrent, remarking that the “whole scene where I catch [Michael] in the fog coming off the bridge ... I mean, it’s a very sensual moment!” (The director, Schumacher, himself has long been openly gay.)

This isn’t to say that The Lost Boys advances an uncomplicated, progressive idea of family. The film does appear to feature some of the moral concerns of the time, what Levy describes as a focus on “stability and maintenance of the status quo against ‘outside’ forces,” and what others say are “self-obsessed divorced parents and their abandoned kids, left vulnerable to fall into any number of dangerous situations.” But such interpretations risk perpetuating the very stubborn perspectives that the movie is actually wrestling with—that children of divorced parents are lost, that women who leave marriages are neglectful.

Many elements of the plot, including Lucy’s search for a father-like partner, may seem more conventional. “The renewed paternal authority in vampire films of the 1980s ... nullifies the vampire gang itself, whose supposed freedom is orchestrated by an inescapable patriarch,” Auerbach argues. But The Lost Boys is too clever to buy fully into this genre trapping, even if the plot seems to operate in one register. Consider how absurdly the vampire kingpin Max is taken out: impaled on a wooden fence post when Grandpa’s truck careens into the house. Max is comedically blown to smithereens—as is, the film implies, his power as the gang’s father figure.

Thirty years after The Lost Boys’ release, it’s easy to take the movie’s forward-thinking vision of kinship for granted. After all, the look of American families has changed dramatically over the decades—there isn’t even an overarching family type anymore. Yet the film questions many of the moral assumptions attached to ideas that endure today, including the belief that the “stable two-parent family” is still the best arrangement for children. While The Lost Boys might not be the most popular vampire tale in the canon, its bracing brew of quiet commentary and genre reinvention certainly puts it among the most memorable. Though known for its more superficial delights, Schumacher’s movie continues to prod viewers to reflect more deeply on their own lives—a legacy that, like the vampires themselves, will never die.