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Vamped Out

'80s films that taught us to just say no to bloodsucking

By Steve Palopoli

THE 1980s was a strange decade for horror movies. There were a handful of offbeat classics like Stuart Gordon's Re-animator and Clive Barker's Hellraiser, and some films that fans love to fight over like John Carpenter's The Thing and Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street. Mostly the decade played out as a parade of sequels, slashers and sequels to slashers. As a fan of such total trash as Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, I'm not saying this was completely a negative. However, the most inexplicable thing about '80s horror is how it got co-opted by Nancy Reagan. I am not kidding about this. When vampire movies made their brief comeback in the mid-'80s, they were pretty much one "Just Say No" commercial after another. That doesn't mean there weren't some good films in this cycle, but watching them now I've discovered a formula that wasn't obvious to me at the time: most of them are basically about peer pressure, and are plotted like after-school specials with fangs. Their stories almost invariably center around a teenager who gets a crush on a member of the opposite sex, who is or will become a half-vampire. It's always a half-vampire, mind you, because otherwise the teen hero wouldn't have any hope of saving them. But in '80s films, there's always a way—usually it's killing the head vampire, but sometimes it's a blood transfusion in the barn. Hey, whatever gets the job done! Meanwhile, they usually end up getting bit themselves in the process and have to fight for control over their own darkest urges to get through. You would think with the smutty reputation of the vampire genre, the central metaphor in play would be something about how teens are going through all kinds of sexual awakening and must wrestle with lust and other forces that make them want to be touched where their swimsuit goes. But apparently since '80s werewolves movies already had a lock on that particular metaphor, vampire movies had to settle for something far more lame: drugs. In these movies, the kid who's getting sucked dry starts to wear dark glasses (for light sensitivity—riiiiight), hangs out with the wrong crowd, and even worse, starts to talk back to his parent. It's always a single parent, of course, because anyone who sat through a DARE lecture knows that single-parent homes are far more likely to produce drug users.

Examples? Here are a few, in reverse order of cultiness (and watchability):Fright Night (1985) & Fright Night 2 (1988): I have a soft spot for these because I love Roddy McDowell as the supposedly fearless but actually quite frightened vampire killer. The vampire effects at the end of the first one are pretty good and disturbing, it has Evil Ed, and Chris Sarandon plays the smuggest vampire in screen history. Other than that, they're both equally mediocre. I'm not sure whether to subtract or add points for the vampire on roller blades in the second one, but the plot is almost exactly the same. William Ragsdale is the moody teen who, after rescuing his girlfriend in the first film, is drawn to the sexy vamp and starts to act like an addict in Fright Night 2.

The Lost Boys (1987): Living in Santa Cruz for years, this was always a local favorite. It's still fun, but it has the most hilarious and dorky of the "Just Say No" plots, too. Jason Patric as Michael gives into every kind of peer pressure the vampires can throw at him: he drinks from a bottle (of blood!) and then jumps off a train trestle just because Kiefer Sutherland did. Judging from Michael's reaction, half-vampirism apparently makes you a surly bitch who looks like Michael Hutchence from INXS. This movie, meanwhile, makes you walk around for days singing that stupid song where the kids chant "Thou shall not fall." At least it has the Two Coreys—and they're in the sequel that's coming out this summer. Straight to DVD, yo! Near Dark (1987): The best of the '80s vampire lot by far, this is an offbeat Southern Gothic version of the vampire mythos from director Kathryn Bigelow, and a true cult classic. Many people don't even recognize Bill Paxton as the "crazy guy" in a gang of outlaw vampires who travel around with the windows blacked out on their stolen RVs, take out entire bars full of white trash and hole up in motel rooms. The look and cinematography are stunning—if there's ever been a more lovingly rendered depiction of vampires on fire, I haven't seen it. Sadly, this one is getting an update from Michael Bay this year. If someone wants to put an end to all these crappy horror remakes, I guarantee he's the head vampire to take out.

CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to [email protected].

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