“Today is a good day to die.”
Horror fans of a certain age will remember this as the opening line of the 1990 movie FLATLINERS, about a group of med school students who explore the afterlife by literally killing and reviving each other. Starring an elite group of Hollywood Brat Packers (including Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon), the film challenged popular ideas about what a horror movie should be, by substituting seekers for slashers and metaphysical speculation for supernatural monsters.
It also launched the career of screenwriter Peter Filardi, who remembers that his spec script for FLATLINERS was the result of a personal search. “I was trying to find a new frontier,” he says. “The West had been done. Space had been done by George Lucas. Wes Craven had explored dreams with Freddy. So what was left?” In the film, Sutherland’s character echoes the sentiment: “First we had the sea, then America, the West, the moon, Mr. Leary, drugs—the inner journey, Ms. MacLaine and our illustrious former First Lady—the outer journey. But this, this is ours!” FLATLINERS became a spiritual journey for the Reagan-era generation—whose biggest ideological conflict, according to Filardi, was about accountability.
The filmmaker reflects: “When I wrote FLATLINERS, the Iran-Contra scandal was in the news. I remember people during those hearings just hammering home the idea that there was no accountability [in government], which created a sense of anger and betrayal. And I remember thinking: Those people don’t realize how much their actions are changing and altering us. Because what we all want from life is accountability. It’s why we create legal systems and religions, because we need to feel that the just will be rewarded and the bad guys will get their just desserts. The world is too insane without it. Even if that justice is in the next life, we need that.”
Drawing on his Protestant upbringing, Filardi turned FLATLINERS into a film about “metaphysical accountability.” When the characters die, they don’t find themselves in Heaven or Hell—but they have to confront their sins, in the form of people they have wronged or believe they have wronged. The notion of cosmic justice was something that affected the writer felt very deeply. “To this day,” he admits, “I fear and regret how I may have altered somebody else’s past by some little—or seemingly little—misdeed.” Like the character Horatio in the film (played by Kevin Bacon), Filardi doesn’t run away from karmic accountability. He confronts it in his writing.
The characters in FLATLINERS are earnest seekers who long for meaning and magic in life. Like the hero in Ingmar Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL, they want to experience God with their physical senses. The screenwriter can relate. “With religion,” he says, “you have to take a leap of faith. You either make that leap or you don’t. FLATLINERS came from the youthful attitude—maybe the arrogance of youth—that you have to see something in order to believe it.” Like transgressors in some Victorian gothic novel, the med students emphasize science and personal experience over religion or faith. And instead of being punished for their transgressions, they are rewarded with wonder.
Filardi wrote two more horror films during the subsequent decade, 1996’s THE CRAFT (starring Neve Campbell and Fairuza Balk as teenage witches) and 2000’s notorious—and still unreleased—RICKY SIX, based on the true story of teenage Satanist Ricky Kasso. These films explore similar pagan concepts, but Filardi says that for him the stories are about a broader sense of magic: “I like to imagine a world with magic. I like to think there’s more to the world around us than meets the eye. That’s why horror always spoke to me. It’s about people looking for knowledge, power, answers, and some control of their lives. That’s everything I was looking for, well into my twenties. I would read books about witchcraft or THE SATANIC BIBLE—or even just Jim Morrison, which led to William Blake—and they would open up all these doors to new ideas and new possibilities. It was exciting.”
In the 2000s, Filardi has remained committed to his favorite genre. In 2004, he adapted Stephen King’s ‘SALEM’S LOT for the small screen. “That was the first adult book I ever read,” the screenwriter says, “and, for me, it’s really high up in the pantheon of American literature. So I wanted to be true to the novel.” He didn’t have to go far to find his own personal inspiration for the story: “The novel is all about the town. Stephen King peels back [the façade] and shows the town with all its faults. I lived in a town like that. I grew up in Mystic, Connecticut, which is a very pretty town. But in the 70s it had a lot of dark stuff. We had a lot of dark stories—things going on in the trailer parks and on the ‘house boats.’ In ‘SALEM’S LOT, the town is that type of character. And because we were making a four-hour television miniseries, we had time to get into all that stuff. So it wasn’t just 90 minutes of running and biting.”
Filardi saw ‘SALEM’S LOT as another story about accountability—this time, with vampires doing the cosmic accounting. As it turned out, he was perfectly in sync with the story’s creator. In a 1983 lecture, Stephen King remembered, “At the time I was writing [‘SALEM’S LOT], the Watergate hearings were pouring out of the TV. There were people saying ‘at that point in time.’ They were saying, ‘I can’t recall.’ There was money showing up in bags. Howard Baker kept asking, ‘What I want to know is, what did you know and when did you know it?’ That line haunts me, it stays in my mind. It may be the classic line of the twentieth century: what did he know and when did he know it? During that time I was thinking about secrets, things that have been hidden and were to be dragged out into the light.”
Of course, that’s what horror does best. It drags secrets—our darkest impulses, our deepest fears—into the light.
After the success of ‘SALEM’S LOT, Filardi had opportunities to collaborate with several other masters of horror. He adapted Clive Barker’s COLDHEART CANYON and HISTORY OF THE DEVIL, as well as Whitley Strieber’s WOLFEN, for TNT. “It was great,” he says, “because I thought I was going to have this little niche. I was going to do made-for-television horror with great authors. It was going to be like when I was a kid and ABC MONDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES showed great horror films—like LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and DUEL—that terrified me. I was going to get to do that for kids of this day. So I started down that road. But then the bottom fell out with TV movies for a while, and nobody wanted to make them anymore. It was a bummer. [Producer] Mark Wolpert and I even had a version of STEPHEN KING’S IT that we thought we were going to get made. But it didn’t happen.”
Now Filardi has returned his focus to the big screen. He recently sold a spec screenplay called MAGICUS, about a “suburban war of witches,” to Dreamworks Pictures. “It’s the story of a hardworking single mom and her teenage daughter,” he explains, “and what happens when witchcraft comes into their lives.” Noting similarities to THE CRAFT, he adds, “It’s good for me [to tell a similar story from a different perspective], because I’m a parent now, I’m in a different place… and people my age need magic too. We can get so worn down by the grind of everyday life. We need magic as much as anybody. Maybe even more.”
He has also penned a much darker piece called SANTA MUERTE, named for the Mexican folk saint who is commonly associated with drug traffickers and cartel violence. “It’s about a group of guys from California who go down to Mexico on one of those off-road motorcycle trips, and they run afoul of narcos and narco culture. It has some shades of DELIVERANCE, but then Santa Muerte…” He pauses, realizing that magic and mystery go hand in hand, and concludes: “She’s there.”
Meanwhile, Hollywood is rebooting Filardi’s first two movies. Niels Arden Oplev (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) is slated to direct FLATLINERS, with Diego Luna and Ellen Page starring. Writer / director Leigh Janiak (HONEYMOON) is reportedly remaking THE CRAFT. “It’s very flattering,” the screenwriter says. “And I’m psyched to see how different people will interpret or reinterpret them. With FLATLINERS especially, all the questions are still out there. Nobody’s found definitive answers. So….”