Previously a costume designer and set designer in Hollywood during the 1970s, Joel Schumacher began helming his own movies and entered the pantheon of directors widely disparaged as ‘hacks.’ Some of his films are considered classics, particularly for evidence of 1980s gloss and absolute cheesiness (The Lost Boys) and occasionally he has offered a flawed film that contains some substance (Falling Down). But of course, he’s also made a lot of shit... St. Elmo’s Fire, Batman & Robin, The Number 23, etc. Arguably where he was most interesting was during his successful years in the 1980s where he had money to throw around on-screen in the aim of being the successor to Stanley Kubrick’s work on The Shining, only with Kiefer Sutherland as his leading man. So after The Lost Boys earned money with teenagers wanting to see the two Coreys stake punk vamps in beach locations, Schumacher must have thought he was the new Master of Horror and reunited years later with Kiefer for another horror film, Flatliners, in 1990. Now this film really scared me when I was like thirteen and watched it on television late one night. Popping it into my DVD player on a whim, I wasn’t that surprised to find out that time had not been kind to Flatliners and that it worked as a bullshit morality tale with a lot of creepy gloss.
Basically it’s another round of young maverick doctors playing at being God with Kiefer introduced to us in an elaborate tracking shot across the river up to his pug-nosed baby-face sneering, “Today is a good day to die.” Yes, he and four other medical students decide to embark on an experiment where they self-terminate by flatlining, experiencing brain death in order to see what’s on the other side. So, the film’s repeated set-piece are these five Brat Pack actors taking turns being on a make-shift medical cart while everyone else stares intensely at the heart monitor then the EKG read-out and then yell out ‘CLEAR’ and zap their dead comrade with the defibrillators, etc. Kiefer goes first and brings back with him memories of how when he was a kid he accidentally killed this kid, Billy Mahoney, by chasing him up a tree, throwing rocks at him until he fell to his death. However, these memories turn into creepy scenes where a kid in a red hoodie beats the shit of him, which if it wasn’t for the MTV-styled blue-toned lighting would look quite hilarious (it still is, to be honest). Then William Baldwin flatlines and has a black and white montage of sexy women but realises what a bad boy he has been, cheating on his fiancée (Hope Davis in her film debut!) by videotaping all of his sexual conquests at college, which then begin to haunt him as he sees black and white videocam footage of him boning broads all over the place. Then Kevin Bacon – who we are first introduced to being suspended for four months for SAVING A WOMAN’S LIFE without approved authority (stupid medical board dunderheads) – experiences death and wakes up to say the Sioux word for ‘Today is a good day to die’ and then finds himself being called swear words by this little black girl (best one is that Bacon’s character is named Labraccio and she calls him “Fellatio”) who turns out to be this girl, Winnie Hicks, he teased a lot in the schoolyard, which makes him feel guilty and stuff. Finally, Julia Roberts flatlines too and remembers that her Vietnam Vet father was a junkie and committed suicide, which also makes her feel guilty and stuff. As Kiefer helpfully sums it up for the audience, “Our sins have come back in a physical form... and they're pissed.” Oh yeah, Oliver Platt also hangs about being Oliver Platt, wearing a bow-tie and making wisecracks into his Dictaphone (“Good thing I didn't flatline. My 350-pound babysitter would be chasing me for the half-eaten pastrami sandwich I stole from her”).
First thing, you notice about Flatliners are the locations. Joel Schumacher is the only director I can think of who makes films where the sets steal the scenes: from the apartments these stressed out students lived in, which are all have high-ceilings and artistically arranged clutter and even striking street graffiti on their outside building walls, to the abandoned museum that they all get together in at night to perform their flatlining experiments, which has ornate classical paintings and sculptures of man and God and angels and demons and all that other atmospheric shit (all due respect to the combined efforst of Production Designer Eugenio Zanetti, Art Director Jim Dultz and Set Decorator Anne Kuljian). All of these elaborate backdrops helps to heighten what is really a silly Twilight Zone episode re-do. Even though the poster copy says something like ‘some lines shouldn’t be crossed’ and the after-effects of playing with death seem really terrifying and punishing in the first hour, basically as long as you forgive the demons that haunt you and learn to forgive yourself, you’ll be okay and won’t be haunted by little boys that beat you over the head with hockey sticks (That’s Kiefer) or women who treat you like a piece of meat with seedy pick-up lines (That’s Billy Baldwin). Then there’s this weird vibe where some of their problems strike historical analogies with America so Julia Roberts is asked forgiveness by her Vietnam Vet suicide dad and they hug and it’s all like ‘We’re sorry, Vietnam Vets.’ And then Kevin Bacon makes an effort to apologise to the little black girl grown up to be recognisable character actor Kimberley Scott and he is sorry for calling her ‘ugly’, which has an undercurrent of apologising to Black America for racial vilification without bringing in the topic of race (maybe I’m reading too much into this... Curse you, Cultural Studies! Allow me to enjoy my Joel Schumacher film in peace!).
When you actually think about it Kiefer’s great suicidal experiment that he predicts will make them famous and earn them a place in history and is applauded by his colleagues ("You walked on the moon, buddy" says William Baldin) – basically intentionally killing themselves only to revive themselves through medical science – is pretty stupid from a scientific point of view. All their evidence is first-hand, subjective accounts of what they felt when they were ON THE OTHER SIDE and their decision to film their experiments with a black and white camcorder will not obviously capture all the cliché sublime footage Schumacher uses to depict the inner voyage to death: tracking shots of a snow-covered mountains or a gigantic golden field captured by D.O.P. Jan De Bont before he would direct Speed and Twister. Then also dig on how this Brat Pack of Flatliners are portrayed like a bunch of maverick renegade jocks when it comes to wanting to flatline, challenging each other to go under longer and suffer brain death for two minutes in total. “Two minutes and twenty,” Julia Roberts counter offers. Somehow in the climax, Kiefer dies for ten minutes but is successfully brought back without too much brain damage. I guess maybe there is a God after all; is that the message, Schumacher?