MOVIE REVIEW : STAKING OUT THE PUNK VAMPIRE 'BOYS'

"The Lost Boys" (citywide) begins smashingly. The camera swoops, gull-like, over dark ocean waves toward Santa Cruz and we see an amusement park that might have inspired "Pinocchio's" Pleasure Island; a densely humming little fun-hive with a killer-diller roller coaster spread over the shoreline. At that moment, everything seems so promising--ominous music, the setting, Michael Chapman's cinematography--that you settle in, anticipating minor movie pleasures. There's always room for fancy trash, and this movie--about a gang of punk vampires terrorizing the new kids in town--seems capable of providing some.

Then the characters open their mouths. Something that might be dialogue emerges. More often than not, it doesn't--especially when the heavies are stuffing their gullets with blood. There's a such a disjunction between the slick visuals and the clunking, offensive script that the movie befuddles you. How can it be so polished on some levels and so empty at the core?

It's set in pseudonymous Santa Carla, where a gang of smirking, stringy-haired biker vampires lay waste to the community and terrorize the merry-go-rounds. It's also suggested, with stunningly bad taste, that they're kidnaping most of the milk-carton-pictured missing children. These fiends are opposed--apparently--only by two dour young kid-commandos, the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman, Jamison Newlander), who work at a comic-book specialty store.

Into this "murder capital of the world" comes the sunny, all-American Emerson family: chattering Mom (Dianne Wiest) and her rambunctious boys, Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim), decamping to Grampa's house after family setbacks. Grampa (Barnard Hughes) proves to be a salty old geezer, yanked out of some Wilford Brimley cookie-cutter, and mostly concerned--like a depressingly large number of the movie elderly these days--with talking sexy and raising hell. Michael and Sam seem initially a couple of '80s all-American types: clean-cut, dirty minds. And Mom dithers and twitches like Annie Hall on Benzedrine.

The story--after a short detour into "Rebel Without a Cause" territory--takes a steep dive into the worst excesses of the family-vs.-scuzz revenge genre. In between we get what seems an "Addams Family" version of a TV drama on the perils of drugs. As Michael hangs out with the vamps, his hair and stubble grow and he sleeps till all hours of the afternoon. Blood, apparently, is thicker and quicker than liquor--and only heroic younger brother Sam, and the hard-case Frog boys, can get him to go cold turkey.

Director Joel Schumacher began as a window designer and it's in decor that the movie is strongest; thanks to Chapman and designer Bo Welch, it achieves its goal of teen-dream MTV horror. Yet Schumacher was also a screenwriter and since his best scripts were humorous ensemble pieces like "Car Wash," it seems strange that he couldn't juice up this concept-ridden screenplay--by Janice Fischer & James Jeremias and Jeffrey Boam.

Perhaps, ironically, he's tried too hard to make "The Lost Boys" a good movie, to bring out emotional values. Too much embroidery on bad material sometimes only makes it worse--the normally superb Wiest has such vacuous speeches that her jangled-nerve emotion becomes annoying. You don't want to be drawn in and forced to hear these dumb lines, and you'd also rather miss most of Hughes' foxy Grampa routine--though he does it well.

When the vampires get together, you except them to say vicious, funny, outrageous things, or at least make a few sinister cracks. Instead, they say little, or they talk in ghostly echoes like a collection of be-sheeted Halloween spooks. Only Kiefer Sutherland, who's cooked up an ugly, pale punk sneer, even registers as a character.

Patric has little to do but disintegrate, Edward Herrmann little to do but smile toothily and it's sad to see Corey Haim--who was so touching in "Lucas"--turned into a feisty little blowhard, saddled with coy zinger speeches on the order of "My brother! A bloodsucker!" In the end, Corey Feldman, the kid cynic of "Stand By Me," practically walks off with the picture by growling out a lot of tough-guy cracks in a monotone baritone. The lines aren't very funny, but Feldman's poker-faced stoicism is.

Yet there's a dopey logic here: the way the cliches pile up, the lack of invention, the au courant settings that aren't exploited well, the constant rock music, the central gimmick that is literally bled to death--even the gory climax, with its highly appropriate exploding toilets. All these give the movie a tawdry contemporary stamp: G immick ueber alles.

Midway through "The Lost Boys" (rated R for nudity, violence and language) there's a brief scene that suggests the magic and power it could have had. Michael and the vampires are crossing a bridge trestle at night, when, one by one, they say goodby and drop off it; looking down, he discovers them hanging from the tracks, suspended over a ghostly bank of fog.

When he joins them, they drop off again, like nightbirds or bats, disappearing into the mist--and when he drops too, an overhead shot catches him, squirming on his bed, fully clothed, in the suddenly oppressive next-day light. This scene suggests a fable of seductive evil--but nothing in the movie is ever half as evocative again. It's more lost than the Boys: a glossy fiasco with most of the real blood sucked out of it.

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