In 1922 F.W. Murnau changed the landscape of cinema by directing a highly controversial but incredibly important ‘Dracula’ inspired film called ‘Nosferatu’. Murnau would change all the names of the characters to avoid legal issues, a ploy that wouldn't fool anyone, but his film was a blatant adaptation of Bram Stoker's vampire novel and ushered in a brand new way of visual storytelling. It wasn’t the first horror film, or even the first vampire film. You have to go way back to 1896 to first discover the interpretation of horror as a visual medium with the French short ‘Le Manoir du Diable’, known in the US as ‘The Haunted Castle’ and the UK as ‘The Devil’s Castle’. Although it wasn’t necessarily regarded as a traditional horror in the sense that it wasn’t really created to induce fear, it was the first time macabre images and special effects were performed and recorded on screen. Director Georges Méliès went on to create many more short silent films that would help establish the horror genre like ‘La Caverne Maudite’ and ‘Une Nuit Terrible’. Horror films have certainly evolved since the 1890’s with every decade or era providing something new and innovative to the genre.
From the 1890s to the 1910s visual medium was all about discovery and the type of horror films that were being made were often labelled ‘trick films’. It was more about using the tricks of the camera, most of which were uncovered accidentally, in order to tell visual stories. Directors in this era were considered magicians and films an illusion. The 1920s ushered in the era of German Expressionism with ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’, considered by many to be the first true horror feature length film, and of course the aforementioned ‘Nosferatu’. Both of these have now been immortalized as being two of the most important films ever created. German Expressionism is a hyper stylistic approach to filmmaking focussing on aesthetic and using light and shadow as a technique rather than a necessity. In 1923 the Carl Leammle led Universal Pictures turned to French writer Victor Hugo as inspiration behind their inaugural dip into the more gothic pool. The company produced ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, now considered cinematic classics in their own right, and both starring the legendary character actor Lon Chaney.
By 1925 Universal Pictures had inadvertently launched a horror division and would continue to create iconic films that became affectionately known as the Universal Classic Monster series. It was actually during these early years of this era that people started referring to these moving pictures as horror films. A few years later ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ would debut and the horror genre would be catapulted into superstardom as mass audiences plunged into theatres desperate to be terrified by these horrific creatures. Horror would never be the same again. The next seismic shift came in the 50s with films of that decade leaning heavily towards science fiction and helping to reinvent the genre with what became known as the classic B-movie subgenre. They shied away from the gothic tone and introduced alien invasions, body snatching and degrading mutation to the genre. The terms ‘creature feature’ and ‘monster movie’ were essentially coined to best describe this era.
But what has all this got to do with 1987? Well we’re getting there.
Like all genres, horror would struggle to traverse it’s peaks and valleys of popularity over the following decades, however despite this it always maintained its legitimacy, at least to its many fans. Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was truly groundbreaking in both the story itself and how it was told visually. It basically changed the game and set a precedence for everything that followed. It helped shape the Giallo subgenre which in turn heavily inspired the modern slasher. The 60s and 70s introduced a more serious type of horror film expanding the realm of ghost stories and exploring cults, religion and serial killing. But perhaps no decade has ever been more experimental and transformative than the 1980s. There've been many great years for horror films, both in terms of quantity and in quality, but you’d have to search a long time before beating 1987.
‘A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors’, ‘Hellraiser’, ‘Dolls’, ‘Prince of Darkness’, ‘Evil Dead II’, ‘The Monster Squad’, ‘Opera’, ‘Angel Heart’, ‘Bad Taste’ and of course the two films that this article is conjuring a debate about, Joel Schumacher’s ‘The Lost Boys’ and Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Near Dark’. What a year for horror right? So perhaps these films won’t turn up on any academic study of the genre but there's no denying that they're all entertaining as hell with lots of them considered classic cinema now.
'The Lost Boys’ and ‘Near Dark’ are both dark, sleazy quintessential 80s films that go to some lengths to modernise the somewhat lethargic ideals that were commonplace in the vampire sub-genre. Most of the "rules" that Bram Stoker helped to invent a century prior are still valid here but what both Joel Schumacher and Kathryn Bigelow manage to achieve is a seamless transition from gothic fairytale to punk rock. With both the biker gang vamps and the winnebago vamps, we’re gifted to a horrifying look into what might have been if vampires actually existed in modern US society.
‘The Lost Boys’ may have gained a wider and broader audience (mostly due to its humorous undertones) but it was ‘Near Dark’ that transcended the genre and left an indelible mark on the expansive cinematic universe. You only have to look at ‘Doctor Sleep’ (Stephen King’s sequel to his seminal 1977 novel ‘The Shining’) to see the influence of Bigelow’s work. If the King of Horror is borrowing some of your stuff you know you’ve made your mark. Like ‘Doctor Sleep’, the gang are never specifically referred to as vampires. They travel around the US at night in winnebagos looking for easy prey whilst spending the light of day hidden away in dingy motel rooms. They carry weapons and have somewhat of a hierarchical system. They’re nomads and like King’s True Knot they are very careful about who they invite into their family. ‘Near Dark’ isn’t just a vampire film it’s a western told through the guise of a road trip flick. It’s well acted, gorgeously shot and never specifically relies on gratuitous blood and gore.
Like the title suggests much of the initial influence for ‘The Lost Boys’ came from J.M. Barrie’s cultural phenomenon Peter Pan (who first appeared in the 1902 novel ‘The Little White Bird’) and the countless stage, television and big screen adaptations of his story that was brought to life. A group of free-spirited, mischievous young boys who never grew up. But there was horror lying underneath. What if these boys were trapped in their bodies, having their innocence ripped away from them, unable to escape the inevitability of immortality. The original script written by Janice Fisher and James Jeremias was a play on ‘The Goonies’, with the vampire cast mostly being younger teenagers. Richard Donner was even lined up to direct but had to pull out due to scheduling difficulties.
Joel Schumacher was brought in but he immediately hired a new writer to rework the script. Schumacher didn’t believe in the juvenile feel of the script and wanted a sexier, cooler ambience to the film. Helped by an incredible cast and a banger soundtrack, Joel Schumacher created cinematic gold that leaped back and forth between comedy and horror in a way that was rarely seen. The inclusion of Corey Haim as Sam and Corey Feldman and Jason Newlander as the Frog Brothers gave the film the necessary humour it needed to keep it grounded. But in Kiefer Sutherland’s rebellious leather clad gang we were allowed those moments of provocative fear and bewitching seduction. They were hot. They oozed arrogance and you could sense danger in the way they stole a glance at our protagonists.
Although it did well financially it was blasted for being a little too style over substance by a lot of critics (which is laughable now) but there’s no denying the cultural impact the film had. While ‘Near Dark’s storytelling and cinematography may have greatly contributed to filmmakers outside the genre, ‘The Lost Boys’ reinvented how vampires in films were represented and interpreted forever.
And we do mean FOREVER!
- Gavin Logan