Horror loves the field of medicine. Ever since the likes of Dr. Frankenstein made it cool to go to medical school and then dabble in un-natural and highly unethical experiments, horror has always had time for a good doctor, but the preference has always really been for a bad one! Medicine is kinda scary in its own right, dealing as it does with skeletons and blood and guts, so there’s a lot of material in this particular area that works well for horror. Of course, the really important thing that horror dwells on a lot and that medicine somewhat specialises in is the bit at the end, death.
Flatliners (1990) is set in the world’s best looking medical school where five students are rising to the top of their class in their own ways. Nelson (Keifer Sutherland) is poncing around with a head full of weird ideas, Rachel (Julia Roberts) is a moody sort who’s interested in her patients tales of near death experiences, Joe (William Baldwin) appears to be interested in a career in gynaecology, Randall (Oliver Platt) has his heart set on surgery, and David (Kevin Bacon) is something of a whizz in the ER until he oversteps the boundaries laid down for students as he helps a patient and gets suspended from school. This prompts Nelson to seek him out with some urgency as he’s planning on implementing one of his nuttier ideas and he needs David’s help.
Nelson is somewhat of an outside the box type thinker and he’s come up with the idea to kill himself in controlled medical circumstances and then be revived with the use of electrical do-hickeys and a variety of drugs in order to experience the afterlife, if there is one. Nelson manages to convince the others to give him a hand and they meet up one night to get down to the serious business of bumping him off. Using some gas and drugs the other four manage to get Nelson to flatline, that is they successfully induce a state of clinical death upon their classmate.
After the pre-arranged time has elapsed they set about resuscitating Nelson and manage to bring him back. Slightly euphoric from their success they quickly begin to argue among themselves as to who will go next and for how long and a bidding war breaks out as each of them threatens to “go” for longer than the others and therefore run the risk of coming back with brain damage or not coming back at all. A short time after his resuscitation Nelson begins to see visions of a little boy he bullied when he was a nipper himself, but he keeps this to himself as he’s not sure what he’s experiencing. As the others die and return they too are haunted by things from their past and an interesting side effect turns more serious as visions turn violent…
With one of the Baldwin’s lying dead on the table, the rest of the gang discuss why they should bother their arses to save him?
Firstly I’ve got to say this as it’s been on my mind from during my watching of Flatliners: the sets and locations are fucking amazing! The building where the group conduct their experiments with death is being renovated and looks fantastic, with murals on the walls and high windows and plenty of room, in fact the entire medical school is made up of rooms that look like they belong in art galleries or museums and while these must be great places to go to college it must be fiercely impractical as, for example, the room where anatomy class is held doesn’t seem to have any actual equipment for dissecting cadavers, though it does look pretty. This valuing style over function permeates the film like the stink of a medical student. From the medical school to Nelson’s apartment, to David’s truck, to Julia Roberts, things look good but don’t make a whole pile of sense. Except, they do make the film wonderfully atmospheric and actually kind of cool in a retro way.
Nelson’s apartment is right out of a 1989 music video, all bare white walls and fuck all furniture and lots of lights casting interesting shadows; David owns what appears to be an ex-military truck that’s full of stuff but has only a canvass flap for a rear door, and at one point he absails from a window to get to the ground floor as opposed to taking the stairs; Joe’s apartment (wasn’t there a film called that?*) is a split level thing with exposed rafters where he can hide video cameras for the purpose of filming his sexual exploits as he cheats on his fiancée; and Julia Roberts is the girl of the group. All these things are the trademark of the visual style of director, Joel Shumacher, the man behind The Lost Boys, and while they do make for excellent viewing just like Lost Boys they cause the film to be sadly forever stuck in 1990 which, again like Lost Boys, is a crying shame as Flatliners is brilliant!
The atmospherics coupled with the calibre of the cast would be enough for Flatliners to be well on it’s way to a place among the decent movies of the early nineties anyway, but add in an interesting story and some top notch character development and it should have been guaranteed a much higher regard then it currently manages. The characters are interesting from the point of view of audiences now very well used to the idea of driven doctors who are more than a little bit full of themselves. Flatliners uses this God-complex years before ER hit our TV’s and made this type of person seem normal. All of the group selected by Nelson are chosen because they are allegedly so good at what they do, and the archetypes used became staples of character development for shows just like ER. There’s the egotist, the slightly disturbed one, the maverick, the genius, and the philanderer; all people we now know a lot better then we did when Flatliners used them.
Having characters like this allowed for such a deep an meaningful subject as death and the existence of an afterlife to be plausibly dealt with under the auspices of an experiment designed by a fame-hungry young man who wanted to be known for his breakthrough research into the human condition (though it seems the nickname “Dr. Death” never crossed his mind until it was said to him in the film). What happens to those characters and the developments of their relationships as a result makes for great viewing even though as a film with a supernatural slant there are very few chills and no scares to speak of. While this absence of fright might be considered a drawback for a spooky movie and seems to be a waste of a well developed atmosphere, I think adding in anything overly designed to get a reaction from the viewer would have cheapened the film and I’m glad it’s as subtle as it is.
Two Thumbs Firmly Up for Flatliners.