Flatliners (1990) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The WTF Happened to This Horror Movie series looks at the 1990 film Flatliners, directed by Joel Schumacher and sporting an impressive cast

The year 1990 was a pretty decent time for a trip to the movies, especially if you’re a self confessed gore-hound, like yours truly. There’s nothing better than sitting down in a packed movie theater, or even at home with the pet cat or a similarly cherished human, to watch some carnage on the screen. Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead was a fun remake of the 1968 classic, while we also got the likes of IT, Tremors, Child’s Play 2, Gremlins 2, Predator 2 (there’s a theme forming here…) Killer Crocodile 2. OK, maybe not that last one. Also, if you’re a fan of Stephen King adaptations, the year also brought the ankle smashing Misery with Cathy Bates in full on psycho mode, plus the outlandishly bad, in a good way, Frankenhooker, replete with all of its soft-core pornography and grisly images. Which brings us nicely to a sci-fi / horror movie with a stellar cast, a cool premise and a director with a penchant for coming of age dramas and blood sucking vampires, Joel Schumacher, 1990s Flatliners (watch it HERE). In some ways, it’s hard to think of another movie that is so quintessentially 90s; with a cast consisting of great actors like Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, William Baldwin and directed by the versatile, hugely talented, and greatly missed Joel Schumacher. I remember thinking how original and compelling the movie’s concept was when I first saw it, where our protagonists experiment with life and death, all in the name of science and a fascination with the afterlife. However, thirty four years later, does the film still hold up as a classic piece of sci-fi / horror filmmaking or should it never be revived from its deathly slumber? Stay tuned to find out, here on WTF happened to Flatliners, 1990.

The success of Flatliners isn’t solely down to one person, naturally, however Joel Schumacher’s imprint on the film as director can not be diminished. Looking back on his career, he ultimately became a hugely successful Hollywood player, who the studios would turn to on numerous occasions as he had a great track record of turning in great looking movies that brought substantial profits for the studios. He was a master of the 80s brat pack movies just when they were massively popular, and he nurtured the careers of actors like Colin Farell, with a shrewd eye for talent and an uncanny knack for casting the perfect role. Unfortunately, Schumacher never won any of the big awards that some directors crave for, and when he produced a movie the critics actually liked, you got a sense that their praise was somewhat begrudging. He wasn’t a Hollywood darling, so to speak, and some of his movies got the attention of the Razzies more than that of the Oscars. The thing is though, he made movies his way and for the most part, they were original, highly entertaining and brought original concepts to light.

As I mentioned earlier in the video, his most notable projects pre-Flatliners, were St Elmo’s Fire from 1985 and The Lost Boys from 1987. The former helped to introduce the world to ridiculously good looking guys and gals such as Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore and Ally Sheedy. While the latter is still regarded as a classic piece of horror cinema; a blackly-comic look into youth and heroism that could easily sit alongside some of Spielberg’s mid eighties classics, albeit with more of a darkly gothic spin. Flatliners was very similar to The Lost Boys in this regard; it features a cast of beautiful people who were synonymous with the era and either just rising to the very top of their game, or almost there already. Schumacher managed to recapture the spirit of the The Lost Boys and instead of blood suckong vampires, he investigates what lies beyond death when his characters give themselves near-death experiences.

Flatliners (1990) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Flatliners marked the big screen debut of screenwriter Peter Filardi, whose previous work as a writer was on the hilarious TV series MacGyver. I know, it’s not a comedy but come on, that series was funny as fuck. His idea for Flatliners was inspired by a friend’s near-death experiences on the operating table, and far removed from the usual fantasy of bright lights and angels voices welcoming him to the pearly gates. Other notable additions to the production team were the legendary Michael Douglas as one of the movie’s producer, alongside Rick Bieber who has a different pedigree to Hank Pym himself and has won awards as a director, writer and producer. Alongside the main cast members we also have Kimberley Scott, Benjamin Mouton, Hope Davis and Patricia Belcher as just an example of the movie’s wider ensemble.

The story follows Kiefer Sutherland’s Nelson Wright, a medical student with a potentially lethal fascination for discovering what lies beyond death. He convinces his classmates, Rachel Manus (played by Julia Roberts), David Labraccio (played by Kevin Bacon), Joe Hurley (played by William Baldwin), and Randy Steckle (played by Oliver Platt), to help him conduct a daring experiment. Or, to put it simply; ending their lives in the name of science, not just for shits and giggles. Together, they take turns stopping their hearts for brief periods of time, then reviving each other to share their experiences. Initially, they’re exhilarated by the euphoric sensations of the afterlife, but as they continue the experiments, they start to experience terrifying visions from their pasts. Guilt-ridden secrets and unresolved traumas manifest as haunting apparitions, haunting them in their waking lives. Like I said earlier, the premise is great, but does it still hold up?

Well, the answer to that is largely, a heart reviving yes. While the plot doesn’t quite match the awesome premise, director Schumacher and his hugely talented DOP Jan De Bont go nuts on the movie’s set pieces; creating visuals that are a feast for the eyeballs. What let’s the movie down slightly is that the characters are a touch too thinly written. The characterization doesn’t go beyond what the protagonists face as part of their quest to discover what awaits in the afterlife. Their plan begins with tales of people who die, but are brought back to life. In the middle of this they experience an almost euphoric state where loved ones welcome them to the other side, accompanied by peaceful music and a tunnel of light. The medical students are desperate to experience this for themselves, but their attempts to one-up their colleagues doesn’t exactly go to plan.

The tension and suspense of seeing this happen for the first time is highly entertaining, so is the second time to be fair; however, once we see it re-occur in the narrative time after time, it loses its grip and becomes a little tiresome. The cast all do a great job of bringing the talented medical students to life amongst the gloomy backdrop of gargoyles and shadows that surround the dangerous experiments. Despite the premise of the movie being so cool, there was a danger that the execution of the resulting action could look slightly ridiculous, but all involve pull it off regardless, and with some panache. It’s a well directed, intelligent and original movie, with some great visuals thanks to Jan De Bont and Joel Schumacher. If only the plot had been re-tooled slightly and the cast given more to work with, Flatliners would be more than simply a highly entertaining genre flick with a gorgeous cast.

Flatliners (1990) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Flatliners was released theatrically by Columbia Pictures on August 10th, 1990 and went straight in at number one at the US box office. It grossed $10 million dollars over its opening weekend domestically and made $61.5 million dollars in the US alone. The movie also had a European release in the UK on November 9th, 1990 where it grossed £1.4 million pounds to add to its total gross. No data is readily available for any other territories. The movie had competition from the Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore romantic pottery epic Ghost, which was in its fifth week, with only the likes of Air America and Presumed Innocent as any real threat.

Critically, the movie was met fairly well, with review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 50% of of critics give the film a positive review based upon fifty four reviews. The New York Times wrote that, “when taken on its own stylish terms, Flatliners is greatly entertaining. Viewers are likely to go along with this film instantly or else ridicule it to death. Its atmospheric approach doesn’t admit much middle ground.” Roger Ebert also praised the film as, “an original, intelligent thriller, well-directed by Joel Schumacher” and called the cast “talented young actors, who inhabit the shadows with the right mixture of intensity, fear and cockiness”. Less enthusiastic about the movie were Entertainment Weekly who said, “Flatliners is camp, but of a very low order. Schumacher is too intent on pandering to the youth market to take the mad risks and plunges that make for a scintillating bad movie.”

Ultimately then, Flatliners is, for this reviewer at least, an original, fun, often highly entertaining but flawed throwback to when Hollywood was obsessed with good looking lads and lasses cheating death. 2017 brought a stand-alone sequel / remake of the original movie starring Elliot Page and Diego Luna. Our next video may even take a deep dive into the merits of that movie. More importantly though, as always YOUR opinion is what matters to us here at JoBlo so let us know your thoughts of Flatliners in the comments section. Does it hold up all these years later or should it remain firmly stuck in the afterlife? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this one, you wonderful gore-hounds. Thanks for watching!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

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