Joel Schumacher (1939-2020): Five Essentials

If you were a theater patron in the 1990s, odds are you bought a ticket for a Joel Schumacher film somewhere along the way. For fifteen years, give or take, the costume designer turned filmmaker had his finger on the pulse of pop cinema. He made big hits in all different genres, until Bat Nipples ultimately shot his star out of the sky.

Schumacher lost his year-long battle with cancer on Monday, and sometimes it takes the tragedy of death for people to realize truths that were evident all along. He made some classics. Sure, Schumacher had more stinkers than just about anyone, but in death who really cares about The Number 23 or Bad Company; when you heard of his passing, the movies you thought of immediately are the ones that will stick. Joel Schumacher seized his moment like nobody else, and the movies that became commonplace through my youth and in my adolescence are the ones that flooded my mind when I read the tragic news.

Here are five essentials in order of their release, because ranking them is meaningless.

The Lost Boys (1987) – Originally, The Lost Boys was much more of a Goonies ripoff. Richard Donner’s kid-centric adventure was a big hit in 1985, and Jan Fischer and James Jeremias’s story for The Lost Boys was going to have fifth-grade vampires square off against 8-year old Frog Brothers. Schumacher, thankfully, wanted no part of that.

It was Joel Schumacher who wanted the vampires to be teenagers and the Frog Brothers to be older. He knew it would make the story more alluring, more sexually charged if it’s about a bunch of hormonal-aged teens. Schumacher cast Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, and all the perfect faces up and down the boardwalk. Despite capturing the hyper-specific fading punk aesthetic as it was giving way to the hair metal of 1987, there is still a timelessness and an unshakable energy to The Lost Boys. It’s arguably the greatest “modern” vampire film, a lean, gorgeous, garish entertainment, brilliantly distilled down to its lurid core.

Flatliners (1990) – Five medical students meeting in the cover of night to cheat death for a glimpse at the afterlife, only to grow obsessed with the looks they get, and suffer mental, emotional, and sometimes physical consequences. Now, add three matinee idols, a young Baldwin brother, and a brilliant character actor into the five roles, and you have the ingredients for a robust blockbuster thriller.

Flatliners was a $61 million hit, mostly because it was loaded with young stars every teenager wanted to see, especially in an R-rated thriller. The tension holds up in repeat viewings, and the bizarre directions the story ultimately goes gives the whole film a dangerous, unpredictable vibe. Julia Robert and Kiefer Sutherland became an item during production, and the chemistry and energy is palpable on screen. Much like The Lost Boys, Flatliners showcased Schumacher’s ability to find the right young stars and put them in the proper place.

Falling Down (1993) – For my money, this is Schumacher’s masterpiece. The story of white male rage is a showcase for an uptight, downtrodden Michael Douglas, perfect in a flattop and short-sleeved dress shirt and tie, a relic of the 50s. It was a different direction for Douglas at the time, who had become cinematic shorthand for master-of-the-universe yuppies on film. Here, he is anything but, and Falling Down is one of his best performances.

It’s also a change of pace for Schumacher. The Lost Boys and Flatliners have obvious parallels, but here he applies a different aesthetic. He also benefits greatly from having Douglas’s sad-sack everyman square off against Robert Duvall in one of his sweetest, most sympathetic roles as a cop on his last day on the job. Falling Down is endlessly entertaining, shocking, sad, and certainly offensive to some in 2020. Who cares about those people though? This movie is great.

Batman Forever (1995) – I was there in 1995. I was 14, square in the demographic. I had the McDonald’s cups, I had the soundtrack, I had tickets for opening day. While Batman Forever might not hold up outside of the 90s, it deserves to be seen as a timestamp of the era. This is perhaps the most 90s movie in existence, a hyperactive, hyper-neon odyssey full of operatic performances smack dab in the center of the middle of the decade, in summer movie season. And, despite Val Kilmer being mostly asleep during the film, he works as the stodgy Bats. Schumacher is clearly interested in his character the least, which is fine.

This is Schumacher stamping his aesthetic on the iconic character with the biggest, loudest, most garish stamp he can find, and in that regard it should be preserved and celebrated.

A Time to Kill (1996) – I debated this final entry. I thought about Tigerland or Phone Booth, both terrific Colin Farrell collaborations. But Joel Schumacher’s era was the 90s, and there was no bigger money machine franchise in the 90s than the never-ending catalogue of legal thriller novelist John Grisham. So many iconic directors tried their hand at Grisham material – Coppola, Pollock, Altman. Schumacher made two, this and The Client; he hit a home run here, and he made Matthew McConaughey a star.

McConaughey had been in a few things, but hardly anyone knew about Dazed and Confused when A Time to Kill became one of the biggest hits of 1996. The chemistry between he and Sandra Bullock, herself at the peak of her superstardom in 1996, is still dynamic. Schumacher handles the delicate material with grace, and if any of his films ever deserved consideration for awards season, this was the one.

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