Covering practically every genre from sci-fi and superheroes to musicals and war movies, there wasn’t much that director Joel Schumacher couldn’t do. Bringing his early background in costume design into everything he turned his hand to, his films always oozed colour and style – often funny, usually smart, sometimes misfiring – he made big studio films look like they’d been hand-stitched by a pro.
- Read more: Joel Schumacher – 1939-2020: the maverick director who made studio films with serious style
Schumacher sadly passed away on June 22, aged 80. As tributes flood in from the people he worked with for over almost 50 years in the business, it’s time to look back on the best Joel Schumacher movies from his long and varied career. Here we pick out his 10 greatest hits.
10‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ (2004)
Who else to film Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Casio classic but Schumacher – the guy who told Minnie Driver to keep hamming it up on set because “no one pays to see under the top”? Looking like an expensive synth remix of the Backstreet Boys’ ‘Everybody’ video, the film laid on the dry ice and candelabras as heavily as possible, somehow turning camp Broadway horror into a 2004 Oscar favourite.
Key moment: Gerard Butler serenading Emmy Rossum on a haunted gondola, floating on a river of ’80s music video madness.
9‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ (1985)
Schumacher’s first big film caught the tide at exactly the right moment. Somewhere before Friends made 20-somethings feel OK about not having ‘adulting’ figured out, the Brat Pack did it first with St. Elmo’s Fire – a slow-burning coming-of-age drama and a who’s who of the rising stars of 1985. It might be a wee bit overwrought (one review brutally called it “a TV sitcom without jokes”), but it stands as a well-dressed, blow-dried time capsule of an era and a place that never really existed outside of Schumacher’s head. It’s also so cringy now that it’s actually pretty funny.
Key moment: An emo Demi Moore trying to kill herself by opening all the windows of her apartment so she can freeze to death.
8‘Veronica Guerin’ (2003)
Not the film most would expect Schumacher to make after the buddy cop fiasco of Bad Company, Veronica Guerin is a hard-hitting real life biography of an Irish crime reporter who was murdered after investigating Dublin’s underground heroin trade. Toning down his usual love of excess, Schumacher let Cate Blanchett carry the film with a sensitive, nuanced lead performance. He might have showed restraint in keeping the melodrama mellow, but Schumacher still directed the hell out of the background whenever Blanchett paused for breath, making sure every emotional beat was felt in full.
Key moment: The tragic last scene – all slow pans and drizzly weather to heighten the mood.
7‘The Client’ (1994)
Schumacher adapted two John Grisham novels in the mid-’90s, giving Matthew McConaughey his big break in A Time To Kill (1996) two years after making The Client. Of the two, it’s Schumacher’s first Grisham that still feels the sharpest – casting Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in a fast-talking, hard-edged, Southern-fried legal thriller that twists and turns its way around an ugly story of Memphis mob violence.
Key moment: A opening that ratchets up the tension in minutes as two kids find a crazy drunk gangster in the middle of the woods.
Schumacher didn’t often get compared to Stanley Kubrick, but few reviews of Tigerland failed to mention Full Metal Jacket. Taking the first half of Kubrick’s classic and opening it out into a whole movie, Schumacher told the history of the Vietnam war without leaving home – following one draftee’s gruelling journey through an American boot camp. Star Colin Farrell was virtually unknown at the time, going on to work with Schumacher again twice over the following three years as his career quickly caught fire.
Key moment: Shea Wigham putting a gun to Farrell’s head, not knowing that it’s going to jam.
Forget the rubbish 2017 remake with Ellen Page and Diego Luna, the original Flatliners is a great slice of pulpy supernatural sci-fi. Kiefer Sutherland leads a group of medical students in a series of dangerous experiments designed to investigate the afterlife – getting themselves addicted to “flatlining” as they black out for longer periods of time. Steering the philosophy lessons closer to ghost train horror, Schumacher turns in another cocky Brat Pack classic that looks like it was only ever really made to make the cast look cool and keep the audience wishing they were part of the same group.
Key moment: Sutherland’s descent into nightmare as he flatlines alone, remembering all his fears at once.
4‘Phone Booth’ (2002)
Screenwriter Larry Cohen first pitched the idea of a movie shot entirely inside a phone box to Alfred Hitchcock, but he couldn’t work out a plot strong enough to keep his main character locked inside for long enough. 40 years later, Cohen took the script to Schumacher instead and figured out a tight, tense, sniper story that works perfectly for a real time thriller. It might have just been 80 minutes of Colin Farrell standing in a box (and Kiefer Sutherland speaking on the phone), but Schumacher kept things interesting by using every visual trick he knew.
Key moment: The bit where Colin Farrell stands in a box…
3‘Batman Forever’ (1995)
Yes, the Tim Burton movies were better. Okay, Batman & Robin was awful enough to sink the whole franchise. But give Batman Forever a second chance and you’ll find a movie that’s got just as much flair and vision as Christopher Nolan’s trilogy (even if it is about as far from those films as it’s possible to get). Taking cues from the colourful, kid-friendly comic books instead of the gloomy graphic novels, Batman Forever sees Schumacher at his most visually playful – making a camp cartoon in neon paint and pointy nipples that still holds up as a hugely entertaining summer blockbuster. Batman was never the same again.
Key moment: Jim Carrey’s rubbery Riddler fighting Val Kilmer’s nipply Batman with exploding baseballs.
2‘Falling Down’ (1993)
Before Fight Club, there was Falling Down. It might have looked like a more popcorn-friendly take on Gen-X nihilism at the time, but looking back through an LA haze of early-’90s anger, alienation and disillusionment the film still has plenty of teeth. Michael Douglas is the white collar worker who snaps on the freeway and starts fighting back at the broken society that landed him behind the desk job he’s just lost – using a baseball bat and a submachine gun to smash the American Dream to pieces. Smarter and sharper than anything else Schumacher ever made, it’s raw-edged, angry and still surprisingly funny.
Key moment: Douglas calmly asking for breakfast a few minutes after the fast food place has stopped serving it.
1‘The Lost Boys’ (1987)
Falling Down might be Schumacher’s best film, but it’s not the one that he’s going to be remembered for. It’s not his coolest film either, or his most sexy, ridiculous, unique or influential – all titles held by the original teenage vampire movie, The Lost Boys. Pushing gothic horror through an ’80s rock music video lens and casting it entirely with stylish Brat Packers in trench coats, Schumacher’s stamp on the vampire genre gave way to everything from Buffy and Twilight to What We Do In The Shadows. Playing now like a grown-up Goonies with more hair products, The Lost Boys was unlike anything else at the time. A true pop culture classic by a true pop culture auteur.
Key moment: Corey Haim impaling a bad vamp on a beat box before uttering the most ’80s one-liner ever: “Death by stereo!”