The Lost Boys is a kids’ movie—it’s all about sex. Or let me put that another way—the monsters of kids’ media tend towards a didactic form of moral panic. In American movies of the 80s and 90s, it manifests primarily as a thinly-coded stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS—anti-social violence, infection, disease and gay sex mutually imply each other according to the bizarre and homophobic torsions of the culture industry. That’s especially true for The Lost Boys, a horror-comedy that picks up the Peter Pan mythos and plunks it down in a California of the dilapidated 1980s.
Vulnerable single mom Lucy moves teen sons Michael and Sam out to live with their grandfather in the troubled seaside town of Santa Carla, where it seems like the only thing to do is roam the boardwalk, read comics and work in a video store. A crew of vampire boys picks off cops, stragglers and carnival workers, rides their hogs over the beach. They’re nominally heterosexual, but who’d believe it with those mullets? The vamps are so sexy, in the way of listless punk boys. They are so white. You’d almost forget they got that colour out of a bottle.
Family and Anti-Family
The Lost Boys fashions a moral allegory out of unbridled desire. Embarking on your rake’s progress implies both seroconversion—the switch in your HIV status from negative to positive following transmission—and a subsequent disfiguring transformation into a violent agent of social decay. Older brother Michael falls in with the vampire crew, of course he does—in their high-collared jackets, ripped mesh and crop tops they’re palpably an allegory for temptation itself.
The lost boys goad Michael into a motorcycle race halfway over a beachside cliff. They lure him back to their underground squat, a once-grand hotel collapsed into a sinkhole of vampire decadence. There’s a girl somewhere in there who needs rescuing, but she’s pretty nakedly a device, a third term between the poles of homoerotic desire. Michael rubs his friction out with David, the biggest, blondest mullet around. “Drink some of this, Michael,” David says, holding a bottle of his own blood. “Be one of us.” When David dangles from a train bridge over a gorge, there Michael dangles. When David drops, Michael drops too. The lost boys are, it seems, always falling off of things, a spatial literalization of the film’s heavy-handed ethical metaphors.
Michael gets sucked in and it’s up to little brother Sam to save him. In Lost Boys lore, you can be saved. As a rule, vampire media anxiously reestablishes its lore against common “misconception.” The Lost Boys innovates on the formula by allowing for half-vampires, an intermediate stage of transition for vampires who haven’t yet made their first human kill. The in-betweeners can still revert to human form, but only if they kill the head vampire of the coven that infected them. Where the Lost Boys devolves into a moral allegory about HIV infection, it simultaneously entertains a fantasy about reversing your own seroconversion—that you can undo it by taking out the guy who got you sick.
Put simply, this fantasy is homophobic abjection raised to the next power. In Lost Boys it fuels a vigorous defence of the family, manifest nowhere more obviously than in this horror movie’s suspiciously low body count. Lucy survives. Younger brother Sam survives, the film’s pubescent hero after all. The benignly unhinged grandfather survives. Michael survives, human once more—not without an inculpating display of his prosthetic vampire face in a fateful mid-air struggle with David, its cable-supported flight darkly reminiscent of Mary Martin’s iconic stage portrayal of Peter Pan.
Really the whole family survives, even the dog. At any moment when, in generic terms, a horror movie of the period should’ve fridged a sympathetic character, the Lost Boys practices a curious restraint. And minus some strays from the boardwalk, the only bodies around by the film’s smug dénouement are the lost boys themselves, butchered to a one—plus their self-styled vampire father, Max.
I pause here for Max. Played by the avuncular Edward Hermann—better known for his cheery, pompous Richard Gilmore on Gilmore Girls—Max turns out to be planning a perverse anti-family of his own. A monologue at the climax reveals he’d masterminded Michael’s seduction into the vampire troupe, planning to initiate Lucy into the fold once he’d corrupted her children—a surrogate mother for his adoptive sons. Max apes the family and ends up with an instrument of predation—his death shores up the original against its homoerotic copy. In a sharp reversal, the bad faith of the film’s body count discloses a strikingly accurate representation of the form that homophobic violence primarily took in the moral panic of the 80s, the nuclear family reinforced via the mass and sadistic neglect of people with AIDS. The centerpiece of this reinforcement is Michael’s reversible vampiricization, the fantasy of reverting to a negative status by way of a more thorough phobic violence.
Hapless Tourists and Fascist Werewolves
A different horror-comedy of the period picks up where The Lost Boys left off. An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)—the distant, and tonally opposite, cousin to 1981’s An American Werewolf in London—sends its protagonists on an ill-fated Eurotrip. A pack of homosocial werewolves awaits them in the Parisian sewers, hunting surplus population and Americans on tour—it’s got that kind of post-Cold War take on US hegemony.
Eight years before Hostel, in a way less grisly register, the film discovers you can convince US tourists to do riotously stupid things—so long as they conform to a preconceived ideal of Euro libertinage,; you can invite them into a basement on the full moon and shred them like pork. Our boys are caught in the trap, the wolves kill one and infect the other. But all-American Andy learns from his hetero love interest and fellow reluctant werewolf—Julie Delpy, of Before Sunset rom-com fame—that his transformation is reversible if he consumes the heart of the wolf who infected him. Which he does, some ninety minutes later, in a climactic fight on the métro.
Mostly An American Werewolf in Paris is an uninteresting movie—you learn that straight white men of the 90s wore the world’s dowdiest clothes, you see some cruddy CGI, there’s a clownishly neat resolution and a wedding with Delpy on the Statue of Liberty. It’s got little of the pathos or symptomatic precision that characterizes An American Werewolf in London, where the only release from the werewolf curse is death, and whose sympathetic protagonist breathes his last outside a porn theatre, downed in a hail of police bullets.
But the film does pull a couple of notable moves.
For one, it dials up the fascistic aesthetics of its resident white boy band, its werewolves decked in shaved heads, skintight white tees, leather jackets and boots. Any cinematic crew of skinny white men is always implicitly eugenic—An American Werewolf‘s diabolical pack-leader Claude just says as much. “I don’t think you have accepted the gift that’s been given to you,” he tells Andy. “We have a mission: to purify the world.” According to the movie’s imagination, the homosociality of the predatory monster troupe tends in two directions at once—effete disease vectors and the skinheads of the far right.
It all catches up to Claude anyhow. Andy digs his heart out on the subway, no shred of remorse stuffed anywhere in his khakis. The murder shot’s plenty suggestive—wolfed-up Andy approaches a naked and bloodied Claude from behind, pins him to the subway floor and reaches inside to remove the curative organ. There’s little possible sympathy for the on-screen death of a plausible fascist—but just as little doubt that the blocking of the scene evokes a rape. An American Werewolf indulges a fantasy of reciprocity, restoring your human status at the expense of the creature that stole it from you first; decoded into an allegory of the AIDS epidemic, the missing but critically implied term equates HIV transmission with sexual violence itself.
Fantasy and Reality
That’s the lynchpin of HIV stigma anyhow, and the misapprehension that governments have used to justify the criminalization of HIV/AIDS—while statutes vary across the U.S., the Center for HIV Law and Policy counts dozens of states that variously criminalize HIV transmission or exposure. Meanwhile, Canada enforces an infamously draconian HIV criminalization statute: if you’re HIV-positive, it’s illegal not to disclose your status to a sexual partner before sexual activity that “poses a reasonable possibility of transmission.” By the government’s own admission, precisely what constitutes a “reasonable possibility” as far as the law is concerned is an open question. Failure to disclose can result in a felony charge of aggravated sexual assault. Such techniques demonstrate the grim enshrinement of HIV stigma into the operations of policing and incarceration; the result is a further, sadistic inflection of the state-sanctioned, homophobic, and anti-Black punishment of people living with HIV.
In The Lost Boys hair-metal freaks tug you sexily into the demi-monde, you only try to clamber out when it’s too late. The moral panic of An American Werewolf is considerably less complete—maybe for which reason it’s a less satisfying variation on the theme. There’s no real threat of giving in. But especially in its banality the later movie does its work as a litmus test of the heterosexual imagination, fixated by the impossible fantasy of an exculpatory, redemptive violence. You can survive an exposure to gay virulence and come out antiseptically clean.
Meanwhile, the tidy resolutions of both films—their satisfying, encouraging, affirmative nodes: a girl you can count on; the warm hug of the sustained nuclear family—says something about the limits of horror-comedy as a genre. It’s not that horror more generally isn’t plenty transfixed by anti-gay violence—but nor does it trip over a pile of queer-coded corpses on its way to a comic wedding, a beautiful wife. At least The Lost Boys lets slip the seductive quality of its disastrous rejects, of comely David dropping into a fog-smothered gorge. He looks good just dangling there, he’s calling your name: reader, you’d drop too.