This past weekend, a remake/reboot of Flatliners opened in theaters to little fanfare. Not only was it not screened ahead of time for press, but there were no early paid showings on Thursday night in most markets, with the first opportunity for anyone to see the film coming on Friday morning. Well, in celebration of a movie that the studios seem to be hiding, this week’s Cinema Fearité is taking a look at the original 1990 movie upon which it is based, also called Flatliners.
Flatliners is about a medical student named Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland from “24”) who comes up with a plan to determine what – if anything – waits for people after they die. His plan involves killing himself, and having a group of his med school classmates resuscitate him. He calls together David Labraccio (Hollow Man’s Kevin Bacon), Rachel Manus (Julia Roberts from Money Monster and Larry Crowne), Joe Hurley (William Baldwin from Virus), and Randy Steckle (Lake Placid’s Oliver Platt) to help him with his plan, and he is brought back after one minute of “flatlining.” After the “success,” the others decide to try it themselves, with each subject staying dead for a little longer than the last. Unfortunately for them, the sins of their individual pasts follow them back from the dead, and as Nelson explains once he figures out what’s happening, “they’re pissed.”
Written by Peter Filardi (The Craft) and directed by Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Trespass), Flatliners is a creative paranormal story about life after death. It’s neither a typical ghost story, nor is it a cookie-cutter slasher. Rather, it is a heavily philosophical and deeply existential study of the afterlife and whether or not sins can ever truly be forgiven. Or maybe it’s just a cool little campfire spook tale. Either way, it is a fitting transitional film from the active horror scene of the eighties to the dry spell of the nineties.
The cast in Flatliners reflects the early nineties trend of bright young stars in horror movies. Kiefer Sutherland had just come off of making the Young Guns movies after becoming a star in Stand By Me and The Lost Boys. Julia Roberts had just had her own star-making turn in Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman. Kevin Bacon was already a household name thanks to Footloose and Animal House. Billy Baldwin had not yet hit the big time, but he was (and still is) a Baldwin, and was just about to break with Backdraft and Sliver. And Oliver Platt was on the way up after appearing in Working Girl and Married to the Mob. Flatliners is an ensemble movie in every way, and the ensemble that is in it is made up of notable nineties stars.
Flatliners was shot by cinematographer Jan de Bont, who is best known for almost being mauled to death by a lion while making Roar. The movie takes place in the fall (one of the “flatlinings” even takes place on Halloween) and was shot in and around Chicago, so it’s a fairly cold looking movie. The most photographically interesting segments are the death dreams that are shown as the students are “dead.” They start off surreal and dreamy, but turn twisted and nightmarish once they get rolling as the subjects are forced to deal with the demons of their pasts – the kids that they once bullied and the women that they callously wronged. De Bont’s camera tricks both capture the natural stoicism of the locations and create the horrifyingly fantastic images that help tell Schumacher’s story.
The score for Flatliners was composed by James Newton Howard (Nightcrawler, The Hunger Games movies), and it’s a fascinating bridge between the sacred sounding orchestral pieces of the seventies and the grooving synth-pop tunes of the eighties. The more cinematic sections are ambitious and grand, while the electronic segments are more stripped down and sleek. Flatliners may have been made in the early nineties, but its music sounds like it’s from decades earlier.
Whether it’s because it’s bad or because it has been buried by the studio, the fact is that the Flatliners remake is currently sitting at a 2% Rotten Tomatoes rating and a 4.9 IMDB score. Luckily, fans will always have the original Flatliners upon which to fall back.