in The Vault

Flatliners (1990)

The other day I watched a short video by IMDB on the film Flatliners. The theme of the video was “So ’90s It Hurts”. The video proceeded by showing all the ways Flatliners fell into ‘90s tropes. Now that I’ve seen the film, I call bullshit. Though the film was released in the summer of 1990, more than anything Flatliners feels like the last great movie of the ‘80s.

Flatliners is basically St. Elmo’s Fire with ghosts. Though it stars one of the biggest icons of the ‘90s, Julia Roberts, it also stars one of the biggest icons of the ‘80s, Kevin Bacon. Kiefer’s peak is a bit of a grey area. My point is Flatliners is more than a collection of dated tropes and trends—check back at the end of this review where I’ll breakdown IMDB’s points—it’s a spooky character-driven exploration into the afterlife that more people should see.

The film opens with dramatic gothic music and religious imagery of stone angels and classic architecture. James Newton Howard sets the tone with his brooding score set to Jan De Bont’s atmospheric cinematography. After the credits, the camera speeds towards Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) overlooking the Chicago skyline where Nelson says to himself “Today is a good day to die.” In my mind, this is how all Kiefer Sutherland movies start.

The cast of characters is a group of medical students and we are introduced to each of them in vignettes. Dave (Kevin Bacon) is shown working as an assistant to a surgeon. When a severely injured patient comes with the doctor unavailable, Dave performs the surgery himself. Then the doctor comes in and Dave is covered and blood *cue laugh track well not really, but that’s what would have happened in my version. Dave is shown as the passionate risk taker of the group. How else do you describe a guy who rappels out of windows while having a conversation?

Rachel (Julia Roberts) spends her time outside of class working with support groups who claim to have witnessed the afterlife. She also comforts the sick and dying patients. The performance is good for an otherwise underwritten character. Billy Baldwin plays Joe, who I can only describe as a “Pervert Sex Maniac” who videotapes himself having sex with various women despite his engagement to his fiancee Anne (Hope Davis). He should be a scumbag but somehow he’s saved by that Baldwin family charm.

Oh, also there’s Oliver Platt. He’s a nerd. I don’t know, I guess because he’s not as handsome as everyone else? All we see him do is burn the midnight oil with books and drink a bunch of coffee. Yep, total nerd.

The group comes together when Nelson convinces them he has found the right concoction of drugs to die or “Flatline” to see the afterlife and then be resuscitated. He convinces them because he’s f#%kin Kiefer Sutherland and you don’t want to get on his bad side. Nelson goes under and we’re given our first taste of the afterlife.

It’s not that impressive. Just kind of a soaring shot of a grassy field followed by children frolicking with a dog and shots of a giant tree. It’s tough when you build up a place that your whole movie depends on and then there’s nothing spectacular or unusual about it. Thankfully as the story progresses I learned to appreciate the film’s interpretation of the afterlife, because it’s not so much what the afterlife looks like but what populates it.

In the real world, people are freaking out struggling to resuscitate Nelson. Thank god they recruited badass doctor Kevin Bacon who brings him back by shocking him like ten times with paddles. When he awakens Nelson can barely describe what he saw, convincing the rest of the group to try the experiment despite all danger. Well everyone but Oliver Platt, because he’s a nerd.

Joe is next and his vision of the afterlife feels like one of those ’90s Black and white perfume commercials or those weird Da Beers jewelry commercials with the passionate silhouettes. Joe’s vision is filled with sexy ladies via avant-garde imagery and he gets a boner—well he doesn’t, but he would in my version. After Dave’s vision of a familiar black girl confronting him, those in the group who have flatlined start to experience bizarre hallucinations.

Nelson is constantly attacked by a hooded boy to the point of almost getting killed. Dave is followed and taunted by the little girl. We also learn both of these ghost children were children Nelson and Dave each bullied as children. Meanwhile, Joe is haunted by apparitions of every woman he’s ever cheated on his fiancee with. That last one isn’t nearly as scary but man, is that embarrassing.

Dave tries to convince Rachel not to flatline but she does so anyways on Halloween. Shit gets real when the power goes out and Rachel almost flatlines forever. Her vision is of her father which leads to her being haunted by a creepy ghost dad. Not as scary as that movie Ghost Dad but pretty close.

Dave comes to the conclusion that the only way to stop the visions is to confront the root of the trauma head-on. Dave goes first by tracking down the little girl he bullied for many years, now an adult with a family and begs for forgiveness. She forgives him and his visions go away. Joe’s visions cease when Anne finds his sex tape collection and calls off their engagement. Then he seeks comfort by having sex with Rachel. Not sure what lesson he learned. “It doesn’t matter if your infidelity ruins your relationship, you can still laid as much as you want.”

Rachel meets her father in a dream where she learns he committed suicide due to a nasty heroin habit. Can ghosts give people new information? I always saw ghosts as more of an imprint or a memory of a person. Nah, this is an expositional ghost. He’s gettin’ shit done.

But what about Nelson? Does he reconcile with the young boy he bullied? No, because he killed him. Not on purpose, but it wasn’t pretty. Seen in a flashback, young Nelson and his dumb friends and dog chase a boy through a field, the boy climbs a tree, they pelt the tree with rocks, branches collapse, the dog dies and the boy does. F#@k. Nelson decides to flatline in an attempt to make amends in the afterlife and even though it ain’t pretty i.e. ghost boy, nightmare skies, creepy shit, he does it. The group barely brings him back and Nelson declares “Today wasn’t a good day to die.” It has come full circle.

I’m not denying there are problems with this story. How the reconciliations work, whether or not these ghosts are actual physical manifestations, yadda, yadda. What’s important is that we sympathize with these characters and their struggles. I liked all of them. Each character had their witty remarks without being a smartass and dramatic moments without sounding like a soap star. They feel like real people and the cast does an excellent job. It’s no surprise they’ve all had long, fruitful careers.

I love the idea each character has their own version of Heaven and Hell and how the ghosts are no more spooky entities than manifestations of guilt. It reminds me of a lot of the great Japanese ghost stories of old and throughout the ‘90s. The little boy stalking Nelson should be a far more recognized horror antagonist. He gets the scares, no doubt. Of course with tight direction on the atmospheric steam-covered streets of Chicago, it’s not hard to get sucked in.

It seems the modern consensus of Flatliners is that it was no more a star vehicle for its brooding young cast. I disagree. None of the characters are given flashy action scenes or dress or act sexy. There is sex in the film but it always feels sad or gross. If anything the film does more to promote their acting cops then their personal image. I think this is a spooky story Schumacher genuinely wanted to tell and it pairs nicely in tone and style to his classic 1987 vampire film The Lost Boys.

On to this “So ’90s It Hurts” bullshit. Let me tear this shit apart. Here are the reasons they believe this movie is “So ‘90s”

1. Chicago Was Always Steaming
What does steam have to do with the 90s? Nothing. It’s a generalization tied to an era with no actual connection or explanation.

2. O.G. Sexy Doctors
IMDB claims this film originated the idea of the “sexy doctor” that led to later sexy doctors like Doug Ross (George Clooney) on ER and McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) on Grey’s Anatomy. Cleary, they forgot about Ben Casey (Vince Edwards) on the 60s medical drama of the same name. Hot stuff.

3.The Cast Was So ‘90s
Julia Roberts became an icon of the 90s but Kevin Bacon established himself in the ‘80s, the rest of the cast showed up off and on in bit parts throughout most of the ‘90s. Kiefer didn’t make a significant return to the pop culture landscape until 24 in 2007

4. Phone Booths
I wouldn’t specifically associate phone booths with the ‘90s. If anything that’s when they were on their way out.

5. Graffiti
Oh, come on.

6. Analog Technology
Again, the ‘90s were a transitional period into digital media. The ‘80s is a far better representation of analog technology.

7. Perfume Commercial
The only one I agree with 100%. Billy Baldwin’s sex fantasies are exactly like ‘90s commercials

8. Luxurious Men’s Hair
Not sure how it’s any different from ‘80s men’s hair.

9. L train jump cut
Using a scary train as a cut? I can’t for the life of me think of another film that uses this as a scare off the top of my head. Maybe there were more in the ’90s? This gets a pass for now.

10. Evil Child
This isn’t a trope I tie together with one era. The video uses The Good Son and Problem Child as examples of evil ‘90s children, but I think that’s a stretch. Problem Child was a jerk but he wasn’t actively trying to murder people. Most of the evil children movies I can think of are spread out over many decades. In the ‘60s there’s Village of the Damned and The Bad Seed, in the ‘70s there’s The Omen and so on and so forth. Evil is here to stay.

And that’s what I’ll go out on. Check out Flatliners on Shudder.com if you want to see beautiful celebrities haunted by ghost children and sex commercials. Or you can see that new one… “What’s that? 0% you say?” Never mind.