By J.E. Anckorn / October 31, 2017
In 1985, vampire flick Fright Night was released upon an unsuspecting world, with The Lost Boys stalking close on its heels in 1987. Two rightfully revered vampire movies with a curious number of parallels, but who wore the cape better? Which film deserves to reign as dark ruler of be-fanged ’80s nostalgia? Today, we pit them head to head in an attempt to find out.
In each movie, the audience is offered that most standard of shorthands for a character we’re all supposed to relate to—the young white dude. In each film he will serve as our avatar on our journey into darkness.
Fright Night’s protagonist, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), is not the most prepossessing of heroes. When we first meet him, he’s skulking in his teenage bedroom (and what a perfectly observed crypt of retro references it is!) trying to shove his hand up the shirt of his protesting girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse). In the era of the comedy revenge rape of Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds, this was presumably supposed to establish his cool guy credentials, but today’s viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Charley himself is the bloodsucking vampire. Indeed, we soon learn that Charley is a big fan of creatures of the night, tuning in each evening to watch horror host Peter Vincent present cheesy monster-hop “Fright Night.” Sorry, Charley, but I guess meeting your idols is often disappointing.
Having persuaded his reluctant girlfriend Amy to offer herself up to his dark desires, he immediately loses interest and starts spying on the new neighbors instead, like a George McFly with better hair. This is followed by a spat with Amy, who storms from the house, largely ignored by the jittery Charley, who thinks there’s something not quite right about two men dragging a body bag out of the basement under cover of darkness. Charley is observant, as well as a romantic. If Charley fails to develop into a sympathetic protagonist, at least his increasingly angry paranoia, as he tries and fails to recruit anyone to his vampire-slaying cause, ratchets up the sense of tension.
The Lost Boys fields two heroes for the price of one: we have Corey Haim’s turn as the charming city kid (Sam) out of his element, and Jason Patric’s cheekbones starring as moody older brother Michael. Sam and Michael are instantly more likable than Charley ever manages to be. New kids in town, they have been forced to move from Arizona to California to live with eccentric taxidermist grandfather in his MTV-bereft house, next to an awesome funfair by the ocean.
Okay, so they’re a little whiny, but Sam’s a good-hearted loser who thinks he’s a cool kid, and Michael handily fulfills his function of brooding and smoldering decoratively all over the set like a Jim Morrison-themed throw blanket. In the face of divorce and poor access to cable television, there’s a sense of genuine camaraderie between the brothers, which has the viewer on their side from the start.
You can see why Charley’s only friend is a creepy kid named Evil who he appears to hate, and his girlfriend who appears to hate him. It’s possible to root for Michael and Sam to defeat dishy devil David, but If Charley had received a Jerry to the jugular in act one, I’d have been fine with Amy and Evil teaming up to finish the movie without him.
Victor: The Lost Boys
It’s here that The Lost Boys really begins to flex its MTV credentials. Anne Rice, who did so much to define the modern vampire, had turned her titular bloodsucker Lestat into a rock star the same year Fright Night was released, changing the vampire game yet again. Thus, there’s something a little dated about Fright Night‘s smooth head vampire, Jerry. The movie taps into an older archetype—the suave aristocratic man of means and mystery: gentleman by day, bestial killer by night. Jerry is a child of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, which itself is a straight descendant of the Dracula-esque breed of vampire: a coffin full of dirt, roots in an ill-defined “old country,” and a propensity of smart casual leisurewear. He’s allowed a few quirks—munching apples because of his fruit bat DNA—and Chris Sarandon plays him with such velvety smooth charm that you can forgive the generic retreading of the myth. And to be fair to Fright Night, the framing involving a hokey midnight movie TV show makes sticking to the archetypes essential.
The rock star, haunter of the night, beguiler of virgins, and imbiber of forbidden substances is a natural costume for the modern vampire to assume, and the Lost Boys’ leader, David (Kiefer Sutherland), picks up the black leather mantle as a motorcycle-riding punk to great effect.
You can see why Jerry charms the mums, but it’s less obvious why teenager Amy is drawn into his mesmerizing orbit. David needs no supernatural powers; it’s clear why Michael’s mix of rivalry and admiration compels him to run away to Never-Never Land. Again, The Lost Boys follows the Anne Rice model of offering us the vampire we’d want to be. The battle is not against evil as an external force, but against your own moral code. Is it worth giving up your humanity for eternal youth? David offers Michael youth, excitement, and conveniently absent parental figures. Jerry offers Amy subordination to his will. To the average ’80s teen, it was obvious which was the more attractive deal.
And again, The Lost Boys offers us two head vampires. In a great twist it’s revealed that David is not the “Head Vampire.” Instead it’s the nebbishy new boyfriend of Sam’s and Michael’s mother, Max, who’s the true coven daddy, and it’s a vampire vs. vampire battle to the death to establish who is man of the house. We can forgive the heavy-handed “divorce is tough” metaphor if only for Max’s final dispatch via Grandpa, who never could stomach all the damn vampires.
Jerry’s death by sunlight is a classic of the genre, and includes some gloriously grisly special effects. But as a character, he fails to bring anything fresh to the trope.
Victor: The Lost Boys
Any vampire lord worth his coffin dirt requires a faithful servant, or at least a gang of lesser demons to enforce their leader’s dark will on the world, and Jerry and Max are no exceptions. Jerry’s right-claw man is the affable Billy Cole, while once again Max pads the roster with a whole trio of assorted Lost Boys, distinguishable from each other chiefly by their haircuts.
Although Billy plays a very traditional role—the custodian, who may or may not have a supernatural trick or two of his own up his sleeve (spoiler: he does)—Jonathan Stark’s choice to play him as an affable guy next door instead of a menacing Richard Straker lends some interest to the dynamic between master and servant. Aside from disposing of bodies, bandaging stab wounds, and performing tasks during daylight, Billy Cole is capable of dispelling the fears of nosy policemen with jokes and a friendly smile. He has more character than the usual procurer of coffins and disposer of meddling kids, and advances his role beyond filler of plot holes to an intriguing adversary in his own right.
The transgressive nature of the vampire is reinforced in Billy’s relationship with Jerry; director Tom Holland intentionally included homoerotic subtext, which is largely missing from The Lost Boys‘ determinedly hetero romp. Consider that David doesn’t even get a chance to chomp Michael’s jugular, who instead receives his sacrament via a grubby wine bottle.
The Lost Boys, although each a paragon of ’80s wild child style (there’s even one who looks like Twisted Sister!), function mostly as David’s Greek chorus, taunting new kid Michael into greater and greater acts of recklessness involving railway bridges and dodgy takeout. Basically, they’re your run of the mill high school boys, but with sharper teeth and better stylists. The three Lost Boys exemplify the tagline of the film: Sleep all day, party all night, but their role in the film doesn’t go much deeper than that, except perhaps to help the viewer sympathize with new kid Michael trying his best to fit in with the local cool kids, and being outfoxed by a box of fried rice. (We’ve all been there, Mike.)
The trio of Lost Boys beef up some of the movie’s scares, hanging upside down by their creepy bat feet from the roof of the forbidding sea cave they call home, and chasing our heroes through the caverns en masse after Marco takes a stake through the sternum. But if I was an undead Wooster in search of a demonic Jeeves, I’d go with Billy every time.
Victor: Fright Night
Probably the most interesting characters in both films are what I’m pretentiously choosing to call the psychopomp. These characters serve to lead our main characters out of the mundane world they understand into a supernatural space where the rules are different.
The Lost Boys fields two psychopomps, in the form of the memorably monikered Frog Brothers, Edgar and Allen (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, respectively). Sam meets them in an already liminal space between fantasy and reality: the local comic book store. They claim to understand vampiric lore and imply that they’re expert vampire killers, although, as we find out, there’s something of the charlatan in all of our psychopomps. Like the Frogs, who are freaked out when the vampire they’re staking makes the alpha move of “opening his eyes and talking,” Fright Night‘s horror host and schlock movie star, Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent (his name a nod to horror iconography, in this case actors Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, who turned down the role), knows the lore inside and out, but turns tail when face to snarling face with the true supernatural. Like the Frogs, however, he ultimately redeems himself via a veritable fountain of gore. The Peter Vincent character more than any other exemplifies the core mission of Fright Night—a lovingly tongue in cheek pastiche of classic midnight movies, underscoring both the cheap camp and the genuine heart.
In a similar way, the Frog Brothers capture the mood of The Lost Boys: a little nerdy, a little metal; all the comedy and horror of being a (straight!) teenage boy.
Evil Ed stands a little apart from the others, partly because of Stephen Geoffreys’s mesmerizingly unhinged performance. He fills Charley (and the audience: these characters are all our psychopomps too) in on the vampire lore, but ultimately he’s a non-believer—until he’s seduced by Jerry, who understands his lonely outsider angst and becomes the psychopomp’s psychopomp, transforming him into one of the undead. Finally, the outsider is allowed a brief taste of acceptance, even if it comes with a cost. Every teenager knows this is often the case.
Victor: Four great characters. It’s a draw.
Amy Peterson and Evil Ed vs. Michael
Why the perpetual teenage fascination with the vampire? From Dracula to Anne Rice, through Poppy Z. Brite to the sparkly allure of Twilight, it’s an enduring fascination. There’s an obvious analogy to puberty in the transformation of living into undead, but the allure of the vampire represents something more than that. It’s the journey from the sunlit world of school and parents to the nighttime world of bad influences and nightclubs, of funfairs and freedom that feels like flight.
In Fright Night, both Evil Ed and Amy undergo this transformation. Evil Ed is changed from the weird, lonely comedy sidekick to someone with menace and strength. Vamp Jerry Dandrige doesn’t represent the adult authority figure, but he does represent adult power and Evil’s attaining of it. Unlike the Lost Boys, who only get one vampiric form, Evil receives a bonus wolf skin and a fantastically lavish lupine death scene, thanks to the latex-heavy special effects, reminiscent of the body horror schlock of The Thing (1982). Even Jerry gets to turn into a hideous bat for the film’s final showdown, when the image of the suave gentleman has been cast aside and the bestial face of the dark gift (to use a Rice-ian phrase) has been revealed.
Amy receives a very literal transformation, and one that was common currency in ’80s teen fantasy films: the fashion upgrade of sexual awakening. Think Princess Lily, transformed by Darkness in Legend (1985); Sarah, transformed by Jareth in Labyrinth (1986); and even Lydia in Beetlejuice (1988), who moves from goth casual to goth queen in her red wedding gown. Signifying tribe via fashion is an important part of the metamorphosis of every teen, and it’s Amy’s transformation from prude to vamp which is the most startling. Her sexuality is tied to her power. Misogynistic or empowering? Probably the former, but at least she gets a new hairstyle out of it.
Michael’s transformation, which involves contact lenses and a mild aversion to sunlight, is tame in comparison. He’s essentially a Good Kid, and we’re never really that worried he’s going to vamp out completely. It’s probably just a phase.
Victor: Fright Night, hands down
Michael, Sam, and Charley all share a female support network. Pre-Buffy, the guys were there to have motivations and the women to provide them. Amy mothers and acquiesces to Sam even when he’s largely disinterested in her. This is supposed to indicate she’s a Good Girl, even if she annoys our hero by not wanting to get knocked up lying on the floor of his bedroom. When she does break away from Charley, it’s under the influence of another man. Jerry and his cuckolding and physical domination of Charley, rather than her induction into the legion of the dead, is presented as the main consequence.
The Lost Boys‘ own Wendy, Star (Jami Gertz), has even less agency. She’s little more than a sexy lamp, giving Michael something to brood over and lust after, both a siren and a princess waiting to be rescued. Despite having vampiric powers, her role in the final battle is to flee the Frog Brothers and attempt to protect vampire child Laddie (Chance Michael Corbitt)—and even Laddie gets to do more menacing than Star.
At least Amy is allowed to switch from maiden to crone in the final act, growing a truly impressive set of gnashers, all the better to eat Charley and Peter up. When Jerry is defeated, she returns to her old submissive self, only this time she’s willing to let Charley go all the way. Happy endings all round.
Each film features a single mother heading a household post-divorce. In The Lost Boys, Dianne Wiest plays Lucy Emerson as sweet and naive, needing to be protected by her own sons from creepy Max. Judy Brewster in Fright Night also falls for the charming Jerry, but never seems truly threatened by him. She’s almost an absent figure, seeming slightly disinterested in her son’s imminent exsanguination. Both mothers represent the chasm between the world of the egotistical teenager and the “clueless” adult realm of mothers/women who just don’t understand.
The women in both movies are more symbols than characters in their own right: interchangeable ideals for the men to quest for. Even Vampire Sisters apparently aren’t allowed to do it for themselves, although it is interesting that when Amy becomes the voracious maneater, it’s in a threatening context rather than one we’re meant to admire.
Victor: I was going to give it to Fright Night, but then I remembered the scene where Charley (and by extension the audience) are invited to ogle the prostitute murder victim and changed my mind. No tendies for anyone.
Each film wisely takes the time to include a scene that describes the lore and limitations that dictate vampiric power. In Fright Night, Evil explains how Charley can protect his home with garlic and crucifixes. In The Lost Boys, the Frogs deploy the same tactics to test Max. In both cases, the talismans fail because the respective mothers have invited the vampires into their homes, perhaps to evoke the threat of a new father figure usurping the teenage hero.
Jerry too is subjected to a vampiric test by television vampire hunter Peter Vincent, when he’s asked to drink holy water. Jerry objects on religious grounds and passes the test, but is later revealed when his reflection doesn’t appear in a mirror. Both sets of vampires can be destroyed by stakes and sunlight, and although Fright Night is more creative with its bat and wolf transformations, and The Lost Boys with its “half vampire” caveat, both films stick closely to a very traditional set of vampiric arcana.
Victor: I have to give this one to Fright Night, for the considered reason that half-vampires are bullshit.
Two years separate the two movies, and two years is a long time in pop music.
The Lost Boys employs a cheerful, boneheaded blend of hair metal and power pop. The opening use of Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of the Doors’ “People Are Strange” is an effective way to establish the weird California vibe of Santa Carla. A Christ-like image of Morrison is displayed prominently in the Lost Boys’ lair, the perfect Byronic avatar for Lost Boys everywhere. Lou Gramm’s “Lost in the Shadows” is a perfect stadium rock fist-pumper to accompany a wild motorbike ride to oblivion, and the main theme “Cry Little Sister” injects some camp candy goth into the proceedings. We’re also treated to a bravura performance—by oak-thighed Tim Cappello and his hauntingly greasy torso—of sax-on-the-beach stomper “I Still Believe.” And speaking of camp, Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” sung here by Roger Daltrey, injects one final groan-worthy joke into the credits. Like the movie itself, The Lost Boys’ soundtrack is an undeniably fun trip. It does what it says on the tin: some fun cock rock for boys who refuse to grow up.
Fright Night also nails its monochrome to the mast early, going heavy on the sexy goth synth, with tracks by Devo and electro masterpiece “Come To Me” appearing both as an instrumental theme throughout the movie, and a genuinely cool seduction song as Jerry mesmerizes Amy in the nightclub. (And that nightclub scene—let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the perfection of both the music and the fashion on display.) “Give It Up” by Evelyn “Champagne” King is also used to great effect. Both tracks are appropriate to Jerry’s initiation of virgin Amy into the adult world of danger and sex. It’s Charley who’s the Lost Boy here, stuck in his childish world while Amy moves on without him.
The Lost Boys sometimes feels a little like Sam himself: trying slightly too hard to make it. Fright Night makes no effort to be cool, and thus achieves coolness.
Victor: Both movies have excellent soundtracks deserving of a full article in their own right, but I’m giving it to Fright Night.
I’m going to come right out with it: The Lost Boys is the clear victor here. Both films received an R rating, but The Lost Boys, with its irreverence and humor, appeals more to a family crowd. That’s possibly the reason it’s perpetually lurking somewhere on cable TV, unlike Fright Night, which languishes on streaming services. It’s undeniable that Jan Fischer’s script is packed full of quotable and funny lines, with a final quip that almost rivals Some Like it Hot’s “Nobody’s perfect.” Almost.
Fright Night is a little scarier, a little more subtle, and, although it too has some memorable lines (“You’re so cool, Brewster!”), it fails to tap as perfectly into the pop culture zeitgeist: just enough horror comic references to tip a hat to the source material, but set squarely in a world where MTV ruled.
And when an ’80s movie was essentially the crucible of the Corey ascendancy, how could any other movie hope to beat it? Our younger readers might not realize what a Hollywood phenomenon the two Coreys (Corii?) were, and deservedly. Two kids with looks and talent, and although Feldman steals every scene he’s in (as he did in The Goonies), Haim gives him a run for his money. Perhaps, again, a vampire analogy is apt. Both boys were horribly exploited by a predatory industry and, when they failed to retain eternal youth, cast aside.
The Lost Boys manages the rare feat of being both a cult movie and a pop culture phenomenon, while Fright Night only nails the former. The Lost Boys is the film likely to spring to mind if “’80s vampire movie” is mentioned, and it’s been accorded the honor of being referenced by other gems of the genre, like Taika Waititi’s 2014 masterpiece What We Do In The Shadows.
Perhaps the perils of defining the real bleeding edge of your decade is failing to live beyond it. What was once cool seems outdated, an ancient monster relegated to the shadows of modernity.
Victor: The Lost Boys
THE ULTIMATE VAMPIRIC VICTOR: Fright Night takes it by a single point.
Well, things really were neck and neck there! That’s a vampire joke because vampires like to bite necks. Except in The Lost Boys, where you can just swig eternal life from a tatty bottle, apparently. Am I bitter that it was this close in an article I wrote with my now revealed intention to prove Fright Night as the defining ’80s vampire movie? Possibly.
Fun will always have an edge over weirdness, I suppose. Maybe that’s the true horror. I’m off to paint my nails black, and compose a gloomy poem. What rhymes with Corey?