Originally released in 1990, I haven’t watched Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners in full since the late 90s, but it remains one of those films that lingers in the must-watch, cult classic cupola and this all-new 4K restoration from Arrow Video is a welcome addition to their stellar film catalogue.
Arrow’s unique touch is because these are never a standard re-package, so as well as the 4K restoration, approved by cinematographer Jan de Bont, that looks impressively dark, earthy and equally ethereal, there’s a new commentary track by critics Bryan Reesman and Max Evry, plus a wealth of fresh extras including interviews with writer Peter Filardi, DOP de Bont, composer James Newton Howard, production designer Eugenio Zanetti, art director Larry Lundy, and costume designer Susan Becker – who offer an in-depth insight to the process along with their memories of the production – as well as their recollections of the late Joel Schumacher.
All these things together show it was a labour of love, and it’s worth revisiting to appreciate the work that’s gone into giving this cult favourite a new shock of life, because it’s not your everyday Hollywood affair. Somehow unusually timeless, and oddly (yet welcomingly) modern in its approach, as well as diverse and brave in its cast and storytelling. Flatliners is deeper than you might expect, and while could be easily dismissed, with its strong director and a stellar cast, they really bring to life both the afterlife and the reality of their characters obsessions.
There’s no specific location for Flatliners, the old generic American city, although it was filmed in Chicago and the film has a very Gotham City vibe (which is interesting as it came before Burton’s Batman, and obviously even further ahead of Nolan’s Batman Begins), and we’re first introduced to Kiefer Sutherland’s Nelson, we see him stood on a river bank during a sunrise proclaiming, quite directly, “today is a good day to die” before we delve further into his life, and four other friends, at an unknown University Hospital of Medicine.
Alongside Sutherland’s Nelson, we meet Julia Roberts’ Rachel, Kevin Bacon plays Labraccio, William Baldwin as Joe and Oliver Platt plays Randy, there are other key characters, but we’ll keep them out of the brief rundown, for newcomers to the film. The overlying story is that of these five ambitious medical students investigating the biggest question of all: what happens to us after we die? To aid their experiences, one by one (led by Nelson), they induce their own deaths and delve into the afterlife within a pre-determined amount of time, before their student colleagues bring them back to life, with the hope that those momentary death experiences will present concise answers. But here’s the flip, whilst it does give them a look inside, it also brings back something much worse, probably brought on by brain damage, and that’s visions of suppressed traumas from their past, which eventually turn into something more visceral, stepping out of the world of the dead and into their waking lives.
You really have to ‘go’ with Flatliners, or you’ll skip over the escapism. The production and setting of the film makes this easy because we’re in an odd reality from the start. It’s not your everyday school, it’s in an old church with religious frescos, and the vibe is deeply gothic and Halloween (the season) esque. What’s particularly spectacular about the film is Jan de Bont’s cinematography, with his palette of low orange hues, and dusky unknowns, like the moment before the day/night is always lingering, and the shadows are hiding the reality of what’s to come for the characters.
Schumacher’s world-building puts us right into their lives, and the ensemble all offer a little something different to the story. Kiefer’s Nelson is the Gambler, Bacon an Outsider, Roberts is super smart, yet intrigued by Nelson’s plans, Baldwin is the classic Jock and Platt’s Randy the smart one, who is trying to bring an essence of logic to their experiments. What I found particularly interesting is that it feels a little ageless, and I was concerned it’d be dated. That Gothic-edge takes us somewhere else, and those settings of life and death, all within a ghostly world of creeping images, subtly scored within angelic voices counterbalancing the space around them, really sets the scene from the start. Proper ‘Science’ is somewhat thrown aside a little too quickly for what’s supposed to be clever students, but they’re strong characters and so you excuse the absurdity, much like certain horror films do – and this is a thriller-horror at its core.
You feel the film is a product of its era though, there’s an interesting use of POV with the use of a camcorder during their trials, which echoes found footage and won’t really hit the mainstream until the Blair Witch era, and I really felt it had that end of the 80s/start of the 90s ambiance, where the shackles of Wall Street were being thrown down, and a deeper discussion was being had and they were brave enough to push a few boundaries in a major film. Joe’s storyline could slot into the #MeToo discussion, which is something I’ve not seen from that time at this level, and Schumacher also invested in a diverse co-starring cast, which gives it an important modern touch.
The 4K restoration is solid and noticeable, you get to see the shadows and changes through the light and dark, each character has a different shift of lighting for their state of mind, and that builds throughout. It felt slightly like a modern Frankenstein, in the setting and space sense that’s created onscreen, and I for one revelled in that – and I’ll slip it into my Halloween viewing this year.
The fun part with Flatliners, once we move forwards, is you don’t really know if we’re seeing reality or not, like the characters, which makes it so addictive. If you can switch off the real Science issues in various places, especially when we know so much more about CPR and the likes, then Flatliners really is a crazy journey. Throw in a fully committed front man performance from Kiefer Sutherland, and don’t get me wrong everyone is excellent, then I’m sure you’ll be compelled to return to this cult classic.
The Extras provide an abundance of insight, as you’d want from a release like this, Arrow Films have organised all-new in-depth interviews that give us a new perspective from the depth involved. Writer, Peter Filardi, discusses how his own career and ideas spun to life, and of working with Schumacher and the Director’s honesty, plus how quickly the process was after the script got picked up into making the resulting film.
They speak to the production designer, Eugenio Zanetti, who helped take the whole aesthetic somewhere different to other films at that point, delving into Greek myth and offering further gravitas to the story. Larry Lundy, Art Director, chats about the art and the setting of Chicago, still Gotham in my head, plus what happened during filming in Wunder’s Cemetery, plus they discuss death masks, phallic symbols, giant lamps and otherworldly set design purposefully placed – and what that covered statue in the opening shot (next to Kiefer) actually is! Plus, we hear from Jan de Bont, James Newton Howard and loads more – who all show how much the project meant to them, by wanting to offer fans even more some 30 years later.