“Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it's time for medical science to try.”
Flatliners, Joel Schumacher's successful suspenser from 1990, makes its way onto Blu-ray and potentially into the homes of a generation who may never have seen it. I remember shunning the film at the time of its theatrical release purely because of its hip cast and flashy approach. This was one of the titles that kickstarted the whole lousy (and ongoing) poster approach of having the faces of its attractive cast dominating the image. When I ended up watching it on video, I couldn't help but wonder what all the fuss had been about. It was tacky, contrived and too far-fetched. The characters were un-likeable and the film veneered over the possibilities of such a heady theme as experiencing life after death with dripping neon and primary-coloured filters, resulting in a shallow studio-happy, fright-free horror. But that was just my opinion, Everyone else I knew seemed to have the film's poster on their wall and girls, in particular, were keen to proclaim how much of a fan of the film they were, gabbing, wide-eyed about its concepts and novel ideas about divinity and guilt. Flatliners went on to develop something of a cult reputation and I have to admit that it is nice to watch the film again now, all these years later, and give it the chance that I had previously refused it. Considering the movie's plot, you could say that this is one of my sins come back to haunt me.
“Today is a good day to die.”
Under the magnetic influence of Keifer Sutherland's existential guru Nelson, a group of medical students agree to journey further than any med student has travelled before - without the aid of copious amounts of alcohol and non-prescription drugs, that is. Nelson believes that if they induce clinical death in a willing subject - flatline them, in other words - and then bring them back via chemical and electric shock, they will return with knowledge of what lies after death. Amongst his initially reluctant team are Kevin Bacon's serious Labraccio, Julia Roberts' haunted Rachel, William Baldwin's cheesy campus-romeo, Joe Hurley and the token fat nerd that every filmic group needs, Stickler, played by Oliver Platt. Utilising equipment purloined from the school and the hospital, the group initially place Nelson's pioneering otherworldly explorer into a place beyond physical life, whereby he enjoys some trippy memories that he can't, at first, fully understand. After being successfully resuscitated, he begins to have what he believes are nothing more than hallucinations - strange sightings of his long dead pet dog and a vaguely familiar young boy - but when these flashbacks become shockingly violent, Nelson realises that he has brought back to life a painfully tragic episode that his guilty mind had sought to bury. But, by now, the others in the group are eager to give the experience a shot at the afterlife, little knowing that to do so brings will bring back their innermost fears and hang-ups to plague them in this world. And some of these reinvigorated memories have score to settle.
It is easy to poke fun at how a bunch of hip and trendy go-getting med students can amass all the appropriate equipment and go on to take such a profound scientific and theological leap into the unknown, but before we roll our eyes at the experimental antics of this midnight class, let us pause to recall another brilliant young mind operating on the fringe of accepted belief and academia going by the name of Victor Frankenstein. He too made cataclysmic discoveries about the nature of life after death and the whole dodgy notion of playing God. In fact, Sutherland's charismatic but mission-blinkered Nelson must be related to the infamous body-builder of genre legend. Both possess a “science-is-all” attitude and refuse to believe that there are places man has no deliberate access to, and both share the same desperate and vainglorious realisation that tampering with nature will have terrible repercussions. And it seems that screenwriter Peter Filardi shares the same initial spark of curiosity that drove Mary Shelley to create her legacy, but Joel Schumacher hedges his bets by pitching in a hint of that other cheater of death, Herbert West of Re-animator infamy, with the whole nefarious, behind-the-bike-sheds style of experimentation on the sly. And in employing director-to-be Jan (Speed) De Bont as his DOP, Schumacher also ensured that his film had a similarly garish canvas on which to paint his film. There's even a pinch of Weird Science in there, if you think about it.
“I did not come to medical school to murder my classmates, no matter how deranged they might be!”
The neo-gothic look of Flatliners is quite memorable and stylish. The medical school is an art-deco delight. High camera angles take in circles of corpses ripe for dissection behind billowing floor-to-ceiling veils. Long narrow wards in the hospital, lit by amber glows amid the shadows, hark back to the sets of Dr. X or Bedlam. Nelson's own apartment is chic, but sparse, its ornate architecture making it resemble the wing of some New England mansion. And, everywhere, statuary abounds. It is all too much style, you could say, and not enough substance, but, personally, I think this works in the film's favour. If the writers aren't going to seriously challenge the strong philosophical questions such a plot poses, then at least the makers better have some mood and shock value to fall back on. An old argument ran that the streets always seemed deserted; with no element of innocent intervention during some of the more outlandish situations, and that the gang's makeshift lab was never discovered. But surely the point is that most of the misadventures that this crew engage in are conducted during the netherworld hours between midnight and dawn. A debate in a deli is held during just such a spectral lull, for instance. The down-and-outs that Nelson wades through or more like something out of a fever-dream. Even the Halloween festivities - aptly coinciding with a journey into the outer realms of existence - occur as a slightly distanced event, almost as though Nelson and his team are existing in a place already removed from reality. Where once I was keen to ignore the film's evocation of atmosphere, I now appreciate the tone and ambience that Schumacher has imbued it with and, this time around, I found that I was quite gripped by the way that he piles on the tension throughout the individual set-pieces. Even the oft-used, though implicitly necessary device of having to resuscitate each individual after their allotted period of death - with much frantic monitor-watching and time-checking, gains urgency, when first time around, I found it boring and repetitive.
Where the movie hits a bum note is in the all-too simplistic characterisation of the reckless team and their interaction with each other. Knee-jerk buddy-buddy rivalry between Nelson and Lobraccio - Bacon's mullet is still a work of art - is wasted without much of a backstory to explain their relationship. Rachel may clutch at some profound issues but she really only boils down to little more than the cute and vulnerable object of their mutual affections. Stickler's comic watcher from the sidelines (he is only one that doesn't undergo a flatlining) is only there for ... well, what is he there for, exactly? And Joe is the absolute nadir of the narrative. It may have seemed like a good idea at the screenplay stage to have an incorrigible womaniser onboard to help keep things light and frothy, but Baldwin's low-rent Lothario nixes an opportunity for further spookiness. Who feels any anxiety whatsoever when he is harassed by visitations of all his jilted conquests? This is a mediocre plot thread that lets things down just when the ante could have been upped. We just don't fear for him at all. And the bond gelling the five is flimsy to say the least, their interplay barky, superficial and irritating as a result. The film could have made some startling points about faith and the afterlife, but in post-flatline de-briefings each successive volunteer's revelations are pretty poor - the script even offering them the get out clause of simply stating that the experience was hard “to verbalise.” Indeed, the jumbled montages of imagery that greets each sojourn in limbo - guilt-trips, quite literally - are either deliberately vague or disappointingly clichéd.
“I don't know. Not thinking about the past or the future. I don't know ... it's difficult to explain, maybe impossible ...”
See what I mean?
But then Flatliners works best when viewed as a simple ghost story. The set-up is hokey, but seductive. The theme of the sins revisiting us is timeless and touches us all because everybody has a skeleton in the closet. And, in particular, the use of childhood torment and guilt over bullying is emotive and affecting. Both Sutherland and Bacon do well with this material, Sutherland especially as he manages to combine the philosophising of his “Doc” Scurlock from Young Guns with the charismatic evil of The Lost Boys' Michael to have his character both sympathetic and villainous at the same time. And the ever-reliable Bacon injects a haunting wish for atonement into his likeable and nominal hero. The film also benefits from a dark and sinister early score from James Newton Howard, who has recently come of age with such classic soundtracks as that for Peter Jackson's King Kong and his collaboration with Hans Zimmer on Batman Begins. This latter score actually has a cue that I had always thought of as being Zimmer's, yet listening to Flatliners, it is quite apparent that Howard may have been the genesis behind it, after all. Atmosphere is the primary ingredient here and the music plays an integral part in creating it. Slow mournful tension provides a raw undercurrent of warning and reproach, whilst some thunderclap cues equip the shock scenes with a decent degree of wallop. The numerous tussles that Nelson has with the wretched phantom from his past produces some screechingly top-notch orchestral verve.
“I just wanted to say sorry. What we did ... was wrong.”
Although I was content to dismiss the film all those years ago as being limp and unexciting, I have to confess that I may have been barking up the wrong tree. In fact, there is evidence that Schumacher - who, sadly, didn't go on to make good on the promise - was taking the classic chiller atmosphere of the thirties and forties, injecting it with neon and spicing it up with a little sex and violence. Deserted streets, ominous skies, scenes crawling with shadow and unseen horrors lurking at the threshold are staple formula ingredients, but instead of mere set-piece effect, Schumacher unifies all this redolence with an all-pervading mood of dread. And, again, just like the “cosy” horrors of Val Lewton, the reward is in the slow escalation of fear, the lingering conviction that all is not right. We have great little sequences when nothing actually happens - such as when Labraccio and Rachel walk down a midnight street together, steam rising like ectoplasmic vapour behind them, or when Nelson chooses, quite recklessly, to take a shortcut through a veritable ghetto of scumbags, or Rachel's climbing of the stairs. It is also nice to spot that the soundstage used for the ethereal wooded copse marking the limbo between Nelson's life and death is reminiscent of shots found in 1938's A Christmas Carol, 1935's Bride Of Frankenstein and 1942's The Undying Monster. Thus, Schumacher and De Bont perfect their own sort of life after death for the spooky ambience found in those earlier movies. Notoriously, Schumacher would take his love for neon much too far with his two Batman outings, but Flatliners remains one of his best and most stylish projects. It is no classic of the genre that's for sure, too much posturing and not enough thematic weight for that, but this is still a very agreeably eerie way to spend a couple of hours. Recommended.