Looking back at Joel Schumacher‘s Flatliners

Our look back at the work of director Joel Schumacher tackles another of his most popular films: Flatliners...

Today is a good day to die.” – Nelson

The Recap

As the 80s drew to a close, Joel Schumacher could look back on the decade and declare it ultimately a success. With his last three movies of the decade being box office successes he was becoming known as somebody who could get bums on seats. His first film of the 90s would see him going back to a younger audience dynamic and, much like his work on St. Elmo’s Fire, putting together a brat pack for the new generation.

Brilliant but cocky medical student Nelson Wight (Kiefer Sutherland) wants to discover if there really is life after death, or more accurately, what happens when your heart stops beating. Along with fellow students Rachel (Julia Roberts), Joe (William Baldwin), Randy (Oliver Platt) and David (Kevin Bacon), he intends to find out by clinically killing himself and having the others bring him back to life.

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After initial reluctance from the rest of the group, they finally agree to go through with the experiment and they flatline Nelson. After bringing him back he confirms that there is something out there and the remaining members of the group fight over who is going next, with each of them raising the length of death to be next on the table.

Egotistical Joe is next in line and agrees with Nelson that there is something out there. He is followed by David, who, being an atheist, believes that he can prove both of them wrong. When he comes back he also agrees that there is some kind of life after death. The last in the group to go is Rachel, whose obsession with this quest is much more personal than anybody in the group knows, as she is trying to search for answers about her father’s death.

Immediately after each experiment strange occurrences begin to happen. Nelson sees an injured dog, much like his childhood pet Champ, and is then assaulted by a small boy. Joe begins to see the secret videotapes of him and his various conquests being played everywhere, David is taunted by a young girl who shouts schoolyard insults at him and Rachel begins to see her father everywhere.

At first none of the group admits these things are happening, but they soon become out of control and they need to begin digging into their pasts to figure out what is going on.

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David is the first to figure out that the young girl is, in fact, Winnie Hicks, whom he and his friends bullied in school. Still feeling guilty about the way he treated her, he tracks her down and finally gets to apologise for his past mistakes. Joe, who is engaged to be married, returns to his apartment to find his fiancée has found his stash of videotapes and breaks up with him, not for cheating on her, but for abusing the trust of the other women. Rachael also manages to find peace in herself by finding out her father’s death was not her fault as she had thought growing up, but because he was a drug addict who could no longer live with his demons.

The only person not willing to make amends is Nelson, who refuses to face up to his past and pays for this by being physically attacked by the ghosts of his past. Finally, he breaks and shows Joe and Randy that his ghost, Billy, was a child he accidently killed when a bullying prank went too far. Believing he had already paid his dues by being taken away from his family, he still thinks he can make amends and runs off to perform the experiment alone, thus killing him in the process.

Trying to save his life, the others find him and begin the resuscitation process. In the afterlife, Nelson swaps places with Billy, finally making amends with him and allowing him to move on to heaven, just as the others bring him back to life.

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Thoughts & Reaction

Joining together a stellar cast of young actors, this horror/thriller is a stylish look at the afterlife and showing the good and the bad that lies there.

When I think back to Flatliners, the very first thing that really jumps out at me is the signature Schumacher style that runs through this movie as easily as the story itself. There are some great point of view shots throughout the movie that add to the suspense as well as some very beautiful still shots of the old gothic building the medical school is encased in. It is all very New England meets Paris with a twist of Prague. Much like his work on The Lost Boys, the cinematography really does need a credit of its own, as it really is truly stunning.

A good movie cannot, however, just be made up of stunning shots, though, and although not the best story ever put onto film, Flatliners is a decent enough thriller with a bit of horror thrown in for good measure.

Hollywood loves a good life after death film and although not as sweet as Ghost or as scary as Poltergeist, it does give the message that there is something out there and if you have made mistakes in your past there is the chance to make up for them.

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The most interesting part of the premise of this film, however, is the fact that your past really can come back to haunt you and, if it does, what choices will you make to ensure all scores have been settled.

The casting of this movie could literally be renamed to a who’s who of the early 90s, with Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland all getting to flex their more serious acting chops. Although the film can become a little bit too unbelievable at times, the entire cast manage to keep you believing this is what is happening to them and I can honestly say there isn’t one bad performance (and that is a lot to say considering one of the lesser Baldwin brothers is in the line-up!).

When Flatliners was released it received a mixed bag of reviews from critics. Some hated it thinking there was far too much style over substance, while others found it to be the perfect film to sum up a decade where death, especially with the AIDS epidemic in full swing, was foremost in the public mind.

Grabbing audience’s attention, Flatliners went on to be a financial success, adding another hit to Schumacher’s growing list. His next movie would take one of the stars from this project, Julia Roberts, and again have her deal with the realities of love, life and death.

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Grab your hankies because next time I will be looking at Dying Young.

Flatliners Key Info:

Released: 10th August 1990 (US) / 9th November 1990 (UK)Distributed By: Columbia Pictures Budget: $26,000,000Box Office Gross: $61,500,000Best DVD Edition: Flatliners DVD