Remembering The Works of Joel Schumacher (1939-2020)
On 22/06/2020 the world lost yet another big name in the movie industry, Joel Schumacher. Although he started directing films in the 1970s it wasn’t until the success of 1985’s St Elmo’s Fire and 1987’s Lost Boys that his career seemed to fully blossom. Both films starred the hottest young talent of the time and would ultimately become well-loved classics in their respective genres.
Through the 1990s he would continue along this track and make yet more films now considered classics.
We have decided to take a look at a few of our choice picks from his career:
St Elmo’s Fire (1985)
Ah, St Elmo’s Fire! That theme tune, resonating throughout the past 35 years as if It were yesterday, and the world hung on existential angst and ambition to drive us on to find our futures, so well depicted in Joel Schumacher’s post-college coming of age movie. Buddies become lovers, become adults and ultimately become fallible.
Schumacher had a knack at building beautiful, brooding ensemble casts. With St Elmo’s Fire, he hit the jackpot, finding a complement of seven who worked beautifully together. They were believable in their faultlines, their obsessions, their concerns about that tricky transition between college and the bear pit of adulthood. They often were complete brats, but even that resonated with those of us of a similar age.
Rob Lowe oozed sax appeal (literally), even as a big mulleted deadbeat. Judd Nelson played against type, ruthlessly in pursuit of the deal, not noticing it pushing away his college girlfriend. There were the lovelorn figures of Emilio Estevez and Andrew McCarthy, sweet gentle Mare Winningham, and ambitious Ally Sheedy. And then there was the big-haired glory that was Demi Moore, then very much the ingénue of the group as an emerging actor, but holding her own as little rich girl lost, bringing pathos to a brittle character that could have been much disliked. To this day I use the term ‘step monster’ because of her.
The film was panned by critics who felt the characters were exceptionally unlikeable. Audiences disagreed, and the film remains special to those of us exiting the 80s of an age similar to the characters, seeing ourselves mirrored as we tried to find our own path through life. Schumacher had a gift, not just for superb casts, but for capturing the rhetoric in our heads, giving us a mirror to see ourselves reflective within, an identification with, and sympathy for, even the worst-behaved characters. And that took skill. So thank you, Mr Schumacher, for encouraging a generation to see a new horizon under a blazing sky.
I first saw Flatliners at, of all places, the house of one of my church youth group leaders. That church, like many, did not agree with horror or graphic movies – we had been actively encouraged, a year or two earlier, to sign a petition asking the local cinema not to screen Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. As far as I know, that petition failed – and having seen said film, I’m not sure what the fuss was and I’m certain all these people protesting didn’t actually see it – I found it to be a deeply moving portrayal of Christ, and one that only succeeds in highlighting the belief that while he was fully God, he was also fully human. As I write this I am watching The Exorcist – another film the church picketed and protested against but which, once again, contains a profound message about spirituality.
Anyway – Flatliners. So you can imagine my surprise when I turned up with my friends Rob and Faye and we were told what the subject of film night was going to be.
“Really?” we all said in unison.
“What?” said Tim, one of the youth leaders. “It’s a science fiction film, right? You like those…”
“Er. Kind of, I suppose,” I said, knowing exactly what it was about. I mean, yeah, the poster is all blue like all those underwater alien films so popular in the late 80s and early 90s, and there’s a graphic of a heartrate monitor across the middle, making it look at least a bit sciency, but I knew it was a horror. And so did everyone else.
But we wanted to see it.
So we didn’t say anything.
I’m not sure who was more horrified; Tim, realising what he had just shown us or us teenagers, who got the scarefest we had been hoping for. We laughed about it at first, and then we realised there was the walk home. It may have been summer, but it was quite dark, so it must have been after about 11 pm. We all lived a street or two apart from each other, and us lads insisted on walking Faye home before heading to our respective houses. The walk back to our estate was about two-miles – including going through the underpass beneath the main road separating Tim’s part of town from ours.
It’s a testament to the film’s imagery and tension building that the three of us took one look down that cold, dark tunnel – graffiti-strewn and dimly-lit with flickering halogen lights and lurching shadows – and as one decided to take our chances with the boy-racers who liked to use the dual carriageway of Cottingham Road as a drag-strip after dark rather than venture down there and risk a meeting with the spectre of Billy Mahoney.
Schumacher’s hyper-stylised, mist-swirling, neon illuminated vision of Chicago at night is typical of his visual style we had seen before in The Lost Boys and would see again in his Batman movies. Colour and lighting are massively important to his storytelling process. In Flatliners red signifies the past, guilt and wrongdoing, yellow stands for the future, forgiveness and peace while blue represents the present day, science and uncertainty. Those colours change frequently throughout the film as the various characters experience a whole range of emotions.
I never noticed that imagery watching is as a sixteen-year-old on a hot summer night in 1991, but seeing it again the other night and having a much greater appreciation for the filmmaking process, I marvelled at Schumacher’s ability to manipulate the viewer’s emotions with a trick as simple as clicking on a light switch.
Batman & Robin (1997)
After a frosty reception, Batman & Robin was and still is considered by many to be the worst Batman film, not to mention one of the worst superhero films of all time. I do not agree. Sure it’s dumb and silly. Sure it has the infamous Bat-Credit-Card and more ice puns than the Ice Age. But it sure is fun.
Everyone complains that it’s not dark enough or edgy enough but it doesn’t need to be. If anything, it harkens back to the Adam West series with the various Bat-Gadgets and overall bright and colourful tone. In my view, George Clooney makes an average Batman but an amazing Bruce Wayne with a certain icy cool demeanour about him (whereas I found in Joel Schumacher’s previous outing Val Kilmer to be the opposite). Alicia Silverstone and Chris O’Donnell both do great jobs in their roles. The acting, for the most part, is exactly what I expected and you can see they are all having a blast.
The production design for me is one of my favourite things. Never did I feel that I was anywhere other than Gotham City (which for me, is the downfall of The Dark Knight). It had the edge of Burton yet the brightness of the earlier comics and series. My only real negative about the film is its portrayal of Bane (who, at the time was one of my favourite villains), reducing him from an incredibly intelligent, dangerous threat to a musclebound watchdog.
All in all, I stand by it as one of the most accurate adaptations of Batman and it never feels anything other than a Batman film. It’s fun, it’s loud, it’s in your face and it is endlessly rewatchable!
The Lost Boys (1987)
Jane Roberts & Paul Childs
We’ve written about the 1987 punk-vampire flick a few times in the last few months so rather than add anything else (apart from that it’s a firm favourite at WGN Towers), we thought we’d share a link to those pieces:
- In October, Jane wrote about it as part of our 31 Days Of Horror series for Halloween
- And in January, Paul included it as one of our 50 most influential eighties movies in our Great Year Long 80 Movie Challenge
For me, 8mm might be my favourite Joel Schumacher film overall. Made in 1999 it follows a private investigator Tom Welles played by Nicolas Cage as he attempts to find out if a ‘snuff film’ is real or if it is fake. It’s a pretty grim picture with little in the way of humour or respite but that is one of the genius things about the film. As Tom Welles’ gets deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole trying to uncover the mystery of the snuff film we too are standing right by his side.
Joel Schumacher manages to keep Nicolas Cage pretty restrained throughout the film ultimately allowing the actor to give one of his best performances. Tom is joined on his journey by Max California in an equally great performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It definitely isn’t a film for everyone as the subject matter is pretty dark and at times can be quite depressing. But most people will know what they are going into from the basic synopsis of ‘man investigating snuff film’.
When people think of Joel Schumacher they tend to think of films like Flatliners, St Elmo’s fire or Lost Boys. Rarely do I hear people talking about 8mm, which is a shame as for me it might be his strongest film as a whole.
The movie is a true gem of a thriller and one that looks at some pretty dark subject matter and handles it in a very clever way. Nothing feels like it is done gratuitously which is very impressive for a film like this. The final act does turn a little more commercial but it’s never bad and it is one of the few films I regularly dig out to watch again and again.
INXS – Devil Inside (1988)
Richard Donner was originally touted to direct The Lost Boys but he dropped out to helm Lethal Weapon instead. Schumacher joined the crew soon after but Warner Bros panicked at a less established director taking the reigns and promptly tightened the purse strings. This was a shock to Schumacher, who had hoped to use music as a storytelling device as he had in St. Elmo’s Fire – and he’d hoped to use multiple songs by The Doors. But with half his expected budget for the soundtrack, he had to use bands who weren’t quite as well known as he’d hoped
In 1986 INXS were riding high on the success of their Listen Like Thieves album and were in the midst of recording Kick, the album that would catapult them onto the worldwide stage as contemporaries of bands like U2, Bon Jovi and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Lost Boys star Kiefer Sutherland was a big fan so told Schumacher that getting INXS on the soundtrack would guarantee his own involvement in the film. As they were too expensive Schumacher made a deal to direct their next music video for free if they provided some songs for the film.
That video, Devil Inside, was an unusual experience for both the band and the director. Schumacher felt old during the shoot on Newport Beach, California as he was constantly surrounded by young, beautiful people. He used techniques he’d employed in The Lost Boys (and would go on to use again in Flatliners and his Batman films) but the band were disappointed with it saying that it felt “too American”. However, thanks to extended airplay on MTV, it did help solidify INXS’s success in the USA.
I became a huge INXS fan off the back to The Lost Boys and when I investigated their back catalogue, it was their diverse, visually appealing videos as much as their music that struck me. Despite what the band thought of it, I always liked Devil Inside – it had a kind of epic feel to it, like their 1985 music video to Listen Like Thieves (which was set in a Mad Max-esque dystopian future) so I’ll always be as grateful to Schumacher for being a part of my musical upbringing as he is to my appreciation of film.
Falling Down (1993)
Falling Down is yet another masterpiece from Joel Schumacher’s back catalogue and one that highlights just how diverse his films are in both style and setting.
Here we follow Michael Douglas in what I personally think is his second-best performance (after Gordon Gekko in Wall Street) as he pretty much has a breakdown over the course of 90 minutes. It all begins with a gridlocked freeway and quickly descends into almost a revenge thriller. it’s a fascinating film, in how it’s constructed and it is meticulously well planned.
The film, for the most part, feels very much grounded in reality, it’s only in the last act that it kind of becomes something else entirely. It’s yet another film in the catalogue of Schumacher films that is worth watching again and again.