Autumn Classics: Flatliners (1990)

Schumacher’s Brat Pack-adjacent tale of appalling medical malpractice turns 30.

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Autumn Classics: <i>Flatliners</i> (1990)

As the night falls earlier and you start to get that feeling of being followed on your walks, many movie lovers seek the familiar pleasures of spooky, macabre and melancholy films. Ken Lowe is revisiting some of these Autumn Classics that are reaching major milestones this year. Get up to speed with last week’s look at Misery and see all past entries here.

There’s something unmistakably gothic punk about Joel Schumacher’s earnestly ridiculous 1990 thriller Flatliners, a movie in which Keifer Sutherland shouts “Nooooooo!!!” before getting punched in the dick by a pre-teen phantom. Sutherland is one of a cohort of bright young med school students who are dissecting sigmoid colons and providing clutch trauma care in a former cathedral of a hospital whose operating theaters feature gigantic, Gothic statues on the walls. The film’s opening features a montage of grim Gothic architecture with wailing vocals and time-lapse sunsets. Every set looks like the perfect place for your Vampire: The Masquerade group to LARP it up.

And yet, the whole thing feels about one step removed from American Psycho in its sensibilities, too. Nelson Wright (Sutherland) is the wunderkind of his med school cohort, which includes Rachel Mannus (Julia flippin’ Roberts), David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), Joe Hurley (Billy Baldwin) and Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt). All of them are also students of the obnoxiously driven, probably-doing-coke-to-stay-up-studying school of late ’80s oneupmanship, so they can’t resist joining in when Nelson reveals that he’s going to try to make medical history by purposefully killing himself in a controlled medical environment for the purposes of a sort of brief safari to the other side of the mortal veil.

But just as someone who spends a semester abroad in London brings back the annoying habit of ending emails with “Cheers,” these visitors to the borderlands of the dead bring back more baggage than they left with.

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Nelson: Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it’s up to physical science.

The batty thing about Flatliners is that there are plenty of documented incidents involving people who were clinically dead for a little while and were then resuscitated, and you can plunk down money to read their accounts of it. No less notable a person than Carl Jung wrote of going on a sort of out-of-body, astral journey when a heart attack brought him to the brink of death, describing how he flew up into the sky and looked down upon entire countries.

Whether that actually happened is of course completely unprovable (much like, say, physical pain is unprovable). Medical science doesn’t have any real way into the inside of somebody’s head, so it’s sort of a dubious prospect that anybody would have reason to believe a group of over-enthusiastic med school students grossly misappropriating university resources. So, much as our doctors need to take our complaints of discomfort or hallucination at face value (but not our insurance), the viewer needs to take the narrative of Flatliners at face value. This, Nelson insists, will be a new frontier of science! People will speak about it like they do the moon landing! (The waitress at the all-nite diner where he expounds on this is appropriately unimpressed.)

To achieve this, Nelson and his team need to lower his body temperature, inject him full of drugs, and slowly bring him down to a point where he can remain dead on the operating table for a minute or two before delivering an electrical shock that stops his heart. Then, after he’s gone on safari in the afterlife for long enough, they follow a strict set of procedures to drag him back to life.

With Nelson first up on the slab, their inaugural trip to the shores of the underworld seems to be a success, as he experiences strange visions and then returns to life with a clear recollection of them. It’s only when he’s alone later that he discovers he’s brought something back with him.

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The middle portion of the film, where weird and dangerous stuff starts happening to the characters is its most memorable portion: Nelson and David are tormented by visions of the victims of their childhood bullying (Nelson’s phantom beats the absolute shit out of him, repeatedly and hilariously). Joe, who videotapes his trysts with women without their (or his fiance’s) knowledge, starts hallucinating that they are all catcalling him and feeding him the same bullshit pickup lines he originally used to get what he wanted from them. Rachel keeps seeing the father whose death she blames on herself. These visions intrude in more harrowing and dangerous ways until the group members finally crack and tell one another everything.

The most interesting part of each of these weird hauntings is how incongruous they are. Nelson’s phantom does him actual, physical harm, while the others’ mostly terrify and torment them in unguarded or inopportune moments, while the others are mostly weirded out and disturbed by their visions rather than physically menaced by them. We learn, of course, that the punishments are actually rooted in each person’s individual guilt, and that atoning for it is the only way to make the torments stop.

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The movie is memorable for its big-name cast—not exactly the Brat Pack, but notable for including some of their hangers-on—and its thriller plot on a gritty urban stage. But the aspect that jumps out to me the most watching it so long after its original release is the underlying condemnation of the characters’ self-centered, hyper-competitive behavior. They may as well be showing off their egg-shell, embossed-lettering business cards to each other. Each member of the team (except for Oliver Platt, who’s just on hand to whinge and nag) gets goaded into trying to one-up each other’s record for time spent dead on the slab—literally willing to gamble their lives for bragging rights. They’re so competitive and determined not to seem as if they’re wimping out that they don’t share the truth of their tormentors until the matter has gotten well and truly out of hand. And, importantly, they only overcome their collective sins when they start working together as a team.

Just because Flatliners is set in autumn—one of Nelson’s flatlining sessions is occurring inside a gothic cathedral while a Rated T For Teen Halloween rager is happening outside—isn’t the only reason it’s a great autumn movie. It also has something of the feel of a creepy urban legend to it, a ghost/mad science story with one foot in the Wall Street ’80s and the other in the ’90s of The Prophecy and The Crow.


Kenneth Lowe doesn’t want to ruin anybody’s evening but … are we in a room with a dead man? You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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