Monday, 4 March 2013

Using the Vampire to Mirror Societies Fears Part 2: It's Fun To Be a Vampire

Using The Lost Boys (Schumacher, US, 1987) I will look at how the idea of what the vampire represents has changed from the lone tragic Romantic figure into a group or gang of vampires and what message these now multiple vampires are putting across to us.

Compared to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Ford Coppola, US, 1992), The Lost Boys presents us with both a different presentation style of the film itself and a different presentation of the vampire. Obviously, there is a large difference between Transylvania and California but it is the style of the film that mainly sets it apart from Dracula. Where as a very Gothic and Romantic setting is apparent in Dracula, and the story which is centred on notions of everlasting love focused into what is basically a tragic love story, it is clear the same mechanics are not at work in The Lost Boys.

Instead, notions of the Gothic and Romantic are replaced with the bright and sunny surroundings of Santa Carla. The darkness is replaced with images of late night parties, music, and various forms of the style of the eighties. Basically, the film is aimed at a completely different audience to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Lost Boys is undoubtedly a teen film and as such tries to tap into what the teenage generation of the time wanted to see on the screen - and also what ideology should be presented to them through the text. While the film is definitely a commercial Hollywood product, produced to make money out of the MTV generation, this does not mean of course that certain enforcements of dominant ideology cannot be read into the text.

The film is set up so that it acts to portray the attractions of why perhaps certain groups of people would choose what is represented in this instance as the vampire lifestyle, but in a wider context can be seen as the wilder or more rebellious party lifestyle of the younger generation. However, as I intend to show, the film acts to only let the viewer have a passing interest in the ‘vampire lifestyle’ and presses upon them the idea that there is a need to mature and turn towards the dominant ideological set up of the heterosexual family unit.

In some ways this can be seen as a representation of Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, by which a ‘dominate class leads a society through the exertion of moral and intellectual leadership’ (Introductory Guide to Cultural theory and Popular Culture pg 118-123) In this instance we have the Hollywood system exerting moral leadership, and the presence of the vampires creating an oppositional or rebellious force against this. As such, when the vampires are slain the audience is shown that Hollywood’s morality is the ‘right’ morality.

One point that comes up when looking at films containing vampires is the idea of the vampire as a metaphor for AIDS. As Nicola Nixon states The Lost Boys ‘surfaced in a climate of AIDS paranoia’ (Blood Read pg115-128) It is not unreasonable to assume that a comment about AIDS is apparent within the text, and indeed Michael does become infected with the vampire disease after drinking David’s (Keifer Sutherland) blood. However, I would suggest that there are a number of key factors that undermine the idea that the film is showing us a warning about AIDS. First of all, and most obviously, at the end of the film Michael is cured of his vampire disease. I would say if the film were directly about concerns about AIDS Michael's survival would not have been possible.

Secondly, if Michael becomes a vampire, he is immortal, he will stay young forever and keep all of the strengths of youth, all be it only at night, but again if the film was directly about AIDS showing Michael in this way would not be suitable. If this was the aim I would suggest that themes surrounding  becoming weaker after taking blood such as present in The Hunger (Scott, UK, 1983) would be apparent. Though this works on a literal level, I would agree this does become problematic if looking at the film from a metaphorical point of view. On a metaphorical level Michael would not need to die in order for a message about AIDS to be prominent in the text. Especially as the film works within the mechanics of Hollywood, where it is more common for the idea of a ‘happy ending’ and return to the ‘normal’ order to take prominence over reality.

However, I believe the biggest thing that enforces the idea that the film is not about AIDS comes when Michael drinks David’s blood and begins to hallucinate, this coupled with a huge picture of Jim Morrison on the back wall of the vampire gang’s cave would suggest to me that what is being shown is more a warning about drugs and excess than any direct warning about diseases transmitted through the blood.

Certain other factors help to focus the film around themes concerning the use of drugs. For instance, after taking the blood, Michael gains the power to fly, and the notion of ‘flying’ after taking various drugs, most notable LSD, is certainly not a foreign concept. Furthermore, the head vampire, Max I would suggest can be read as a sort of drug dealer - he is the initial source of infection, which leads the vampires to be addicted to blood, he is the key corrupter in the text if you will. So it stands to reason that once the source of the addiction is cut off, anyone who has been ‘infected’ or who has become ‘addicted’ now without a source to get their metaphorical drugs from, will return to normal. As indeed Michael, Star and Laddie do.
Another reading of the text relates to Michael’s adolescence. There comes a point in the text where Michael must make a choice between turning into a full vampire or resisting this change. It has been suggested by Ken Gelder in commenting on Elaine Showalters brief account of the film that this is a choice between Michael turning towards homosexuality or heterosexuality. (Reading the Vampire 103-107) However, I would suggest that the choice can be more prominently read as a choice between accepting the world of wild excess and everlasting parties of David’s gang, or choosing Star and in doing so accepting the idea that it is ‘family’ that is the right decision, basically choosing between staying young forever or becoming, in the eyes of the dominant ideology, more mature. Furthermore, choosing Star is not only showing us that Michael has turned his back on the vampire lifestyle but also the idea of vampire ‘reproduction’ and creating future generations of Lost Boys.

However, I would suggest that this choice is complicated owing to the simple fact that even when Michael realises which choice he wants to make he cannot break free from his half vampire status, possible suggesting in a wider context that while he knows what is ‘right’ or the enforced choice, he is still unwilling to give in completely to the idea of maturity and notions of the family. This leads to the main focus of the film. By the end of the film we have, as Nixon suggests, two opposite families. A dysfunctional vampire family, and also a slightly more functional, human family. Thus in the closing stages of the film, Michael’s fight becomes a fight for the whole family. I would say this could be read as showing that with the support of a good strong family unit Michael will be able to break free from his addiction to a wild life style.

Further emphasis comes in the form of the pre-adolescent boys in the text and also Michael’s grandfather, all of which are not affected by notions of adolescence. The children represent a sort of innocence within the text. They are concerned with comic books and protecting the human family from the vampires, ideas of wild excess never enter into their consciousness throughout the film. Thus, because of their innocence and immunity to the vampire gang’s ‘charms’ they become an effective weapon against them and have a large part to play in saving Michael from the clutches of vampirism. There is however an exception to this, that being the child vampire Laddie. I would suggest that the fact that Laddie is dressed in a sergeant pepper outfit distances him from the rest of the pre-adolescents in the text. It shows us that he is part of the darker excessive vampire culture and not the more innocent comic book reading culture of the others, unable to regain his innocence until he is given a father figure, which appears in the form of Michael.

However, the character that actually saves the day is the grandfather figure. While the children may be immune to the lure of vampirism they are also shown to be powerless against the patriarchal figure of the head vampire Max. We are shown how powerless they are during the scene where Max is invited round for dinner; everything the children try in order to exposes Max as a vampire fails. Therefore, the only likely source who can rid Santa Carla of the vampire menace is the older patriarch. The grandfather figure as we find out at the end of the film is fully aware of the threat of vampires in Santa Carla, However, he is immune to them not only because he is past adolescence, but also, being older and wiser, he seems to have accepted that their lifestyle is not for him and thus, the vampires pose no real threat to him and seem more of an irritation rather than anything that poses any real danger and thus they can be easily dismissed.

Rob Latham raises another possible reading of The Lost Boys, and in doing so shows up another reason why it is the Grandfather that eventually saves the day (Blood Read 129-167). Latham looks at the possibility of the vampires as representing something that consumes youth, and in The Lost Boys there are instances where it is definitely possible to read this. Most notably, we have the head vampire Max. He owns a video store, and as such anybody who rents a film from him can be seen as then inviting him into his or her home. Thus Max is set up as a metaphor for capitalism and big business, feeding off the young generation. The idea of the video shop is important in terms of the Grandfather for one very clear reason at the start of the film we are told that he does not have a television. Thus the grandfather has not invited Max, or possibly capitalism, into his home. This can be read to show us why it is the Grandfather that saves the day - he is completely removed from the society where ‘vampires’ exist.

The idea of the vampire or Capitalism as feeding on youth can further be seen in David’s vampire gang itself. First of all the gang only seems to feed on teenagers, enforcing an idea of feeding on a youth market. Secondly, the gang is put across as the idea of eighties cool. Dressing in leather jackets and riding motorcycles  was an effective way of reaching out to the youth market also.

Although the film may be perceived to warn against falling for this capitalist life style there is one huge flaw in this argument. The film itself is a mainstream product of the eighties. It is a planned film, styled towards a certain audience for its consumption. The look of the film coupled with the constant references to MTV and style of music within the film itself along with the tag line ‘Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.’, I would say would lead a youth market viewer to more or less embrace rather than reject the dangerous and excessive life style of the vampire. While I admit it is fairly unlikely that the film would have the same effect in the nineties and the new millennium due to even more stylish films being produced, in the eighties The Lost Boys had a much greater impact on youth culture.

Another point about The Lost Boys I would suggest is that Max and his video store can possible be read to show an attack on the romanticised notion of the cinema system itself. Whereas in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we have the characters framed in front of a film screen to enforce an idea of Romanticism, The Lost Boys message would seem to be, ‘who needs the cinema when you can just go to the video shop?’ This idea is of course problematic as The Lost Boys was shown in the cinema, and as such would both be enforcing and attacking the idea of cinema at the same time, which would just set the film in a very messy area of self-contradiction.

To conclude, I would say The Lost Boys puts forward dominant ideological ideas surrounding the importance of a functional family. It also definitely raises a few questions surrounding areas of the idea of the consumption of youth by capitalism. However, I feel the biggest message coming from the text is a definite warning of the excess of adolescent teens and the danger of drug addiction, with other issues being secondary. However, above all things The Lost Boys always will be, and always has been, a film that was made to make as much money as possible, and a film that is clearly trying to attract the youth market by showing an alternative and dangerous life style and as such, any reading of the text criticising capitalism are extremely contradictory and problematic. What this means of course is that while Bram Stokers Dracula is of course a commercial film produced to make money, it does not do this by exploiting the idea of the vampire. Instead it is sold primarily on the premise of being a love story and on the concept of romance.  In The Lost Boys, it is vampires that are used above all to sell the film through the way they are presented as youthful rebels and it is this that sells the film to its audience.

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