A Good Day to Die: FLATLINERS Remembered

2020 is set to be quite the year for horror, with the genre already getting a variety of takes in different sections of terror. From the aquatic horror epic Underwater to the eerie and unsettling Gretel & Hansel, horror is alive and new, but the year is also one of anniversaries. Films we grew up loving stay with us throughout our lives and like my previous anniversary piece on The First Power (link below), this article goes back to the year 1990, to shine a light on a movie that 10-year-old Jerry had no business watching alone in the theater, but is now happy that he did. For this one, we’re combining the Brat Pack aesthetic with a hefty dose of playing God gone wrong, I’m talking about Joel Schumacher’s horror/thriller, Flatliners!


Growing up, I was obsessed with the idea of dying. Not in a 10-year-old buys every Joy Division record kind of way, but in the sense of a kid facing existentialism way too early. “Why am I here and what comes after?” were two questions I faced on a daily basis and from the first time I saw the trailer for Flatliners, with Kiefer Sutherland’s Nelson Wright character looking straight into the windy sky and saying one of my favorite opening lines of all time, “Today’s a good day to die,” I knew that it was a film I NEEDED to see. On a nice August 10th, 1990 evening, my grandmother dropped me off at our local classic-looking theater, The Fox, to see the film I had been talking about for weeks. The film was rated R, but in 1990, with a note from your parents, it was fair game and I utilized that leniency regularly.

As a ten-year-old, I was entertained by a really fun horror-thriller that had cool ideas and performances, but let’s be honest, I was ten, my opinions on movies weren’t incredibly nuanced (some readers will say that’s still the case, but hey, this is my article, I’m all about self-love). As a man about to turn 40, I’ve had a good thirty years to think about Flatliners and revisit it time and time again, and Schumacher’s film really speaks to me these days in ways it initially did not. It resonates with me in a way that allows me to think about what death means and ultimately, what being alive means as well.

Flatliners takes Schumacher’s early career knack for putting together perfect ensembles and gives its viewers Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and William Baldwin as medical students who all have, in one way or another, an obsession with the afterlife. Each student has past mistakes or ghosts that haunt them and those demons are what fuels the group’s desire to begin experimenting with stopping their hearts and dying long enough to experience what comes next, before being brought back to life. It’s a dangerous risk and when Sutherland’s character successfully accomplishes the group’s goal, he speaks of lights and sounds and the ethereal afterlife. Soon, each member of the group ups the ante by insisting on staying dead longer than the previous person, and the film begins to become somewhat of a competition between the friends.

The film’s setup is thrilling enough on its own, but what we’re given then, is each person accidentally bringing their biggest mistakes and regrets back with them. Their “demons” range from Baldwin’s sketchy practice of secretly filming his sexual exploits without his partners’ knowing, to Bacon’s past of picking on an African American girl as a child. Roberts’ ghost is that of her father and the regret she has regarding his suicide years before, something that has caused a sadness to her character that lives throughout her life. As child, Sutherland’s Nelson played a part in the accidental, tragic death of a young boy and when each student begins seeing and also being stalked by their demons, the quest for knowing what comes after is challenged by the fact that before moving forward, we must come to terms and rectify what came before. While Baldwin’s demons lead to his fiance leaving him, real danger arrives with Nelson’s ghost of Billy Mahoney, the young boy who fell to his death years before. Mahoney does his best to destroy Nelson, through bodily AND mental harm. Sutherland is beaten, hit with a shovel and to top it off, Mahoney’s ghost spits into his mouth, the kid is a devilish brat to say the least (rightfully so). Roberts’ Rachel character begins seeing the ghost her dad, bloody from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, haunting her life as well. Headstrong as ever during the film’s first quarter, as the ghosts begin to terrorize each member of the group, they’re broken by the pain of letting their past sins down, beaten by the regret that so many of us hold, that their lives begin to be jeopardized by held back by one’s past.

The true magic of Flatliners lies in Bacon’s David character deciding to finally make peace with having been an incredibly cruel bully as a kid, and finding the now grown Winnie, the object of his bullying as a child. Apologizing for his cruelty, David is set from his demons, something that each character must come to terms with, all while being terrorized by some of the creepiest sequences around, thanks to cinematographer Jan De Bont (who went on to direct films such as Speed and Twister). The visual aesthetic of Flatliners is rich, it’s a haunting film with an eerie tone to it, allowing each haunting to hit its viewer hard. The scene in which Rachel finally addresses what led to her father committing suicide is an emotional wreck of a scene and it’s because Schumacher and De Bont worked together so well to create a look that oozes sadness.

With each member dealing with their ghosts, we as an audience are allowed to do the same and the movie accumulates that release until we get an ending that feels like a really great look at coming to terms with what has held us back in life, all through a visually striking lens, filled with terror and thrills. Flatliners perfectly captures the question of what comes next and more importantly, whether we’re ready to deal with what came before.



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