“St. Elmo’s Fire” is a study in terrible people that sometimes works

St. Elmo's Fire St. Elmo's Fire (Columbia Pictures)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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I was talking about Joel Schumacher’s post-college dramedy St. Elmo’s Fire with fellow Spool contributor Gena Radcliffe. She described it thusly: “It’s a capably made movie with absolutely dreadful characters that the viewer cannot connect or sympathize with in any meaningful way.” Gena is right. The seven friends St. Elmo’s Fire revolves around are, to the last, awful human beings.

The best of them is well-meaning but ineffectual architect who is apathetic to the point of negligence when it comes to stepping up (Ally Sheedy’s Leslie). The worst of them is an aimless sleazebag whose response to a friend trying to open up to him when she’s vulnerable is to sexually assault her (Rob Lowe’s Billy). In between are a condescending and meek-to-the-point-of-absurdity social worker (Mare Winningham’s Wendy); a self-destructive, willfully blinkered party hound (Demi Moore’s Jules); a stalker (Emilio Estevez’s Kirby); a capital-letters-Nice-Guy writer (Andrew McCarthy’s Kevin) and a serially cheating wannabe yuppie with a violent streak (Judd Nelson’s Alec). St. Elmo’s Fire follows this murder of schmucks as the navigate/whine their way through post-college ennui and brush over the genuine crises they do face.

It is a rough, rough, rough watch. Not in the sense that it’s challenging or emotionally harrowing, but in the sense that its subjects are just despicable. And not the complex, worthy-of-study sort of despicable either. I have known stuffed animals with more depth and nuance to their characters than St. Elmo’s band of baleful knuckleheads.

Despite this, St. Elmo’s Fire is, in places, a fascinating film. And its craft is, without question, something to celebrate. Set designer Christopher Burian-Mohr crafts striking movie apartments, places that might be bigger than any college grad could ever actually afford, but which speak to inner lives of each character. Leslie and Alec live in a mostly empty white-walled expanse. Kevin and Kirby have holed up in a smaller apartment that they’ve filled to the brim with odds-and-ends and bric-a-brac (including a coffin that gets used in a sex scene despite no one being a goth). Jules has overextended her credit to craft what is likely one of the more aggressively pink spaces seen on film.

St. Elmo’s Fire follows this murder of schmucks as the navigate/whine their way through post-college ennui and brush over the genuine crises they do face.

Director/co-writer Schumacher, cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Mission: Impossible) and editor Richard Marks (Apocalypse Now) travel through the movie’s world skillfully and take the time for some fun stylistic flourishes. The picture opens with a gauzy, dream-like moment – the seven friends, freshly graduated, walking arm and arm. It cuts abruptly to a hospital ER. The shot is framed similarly, but rather than sun-drenched smiles and caps and gowns, it’s worried frowns under fluorescent light and winter coats. The cracks in their group are already present, whether they know it or not. And the real world will not bend to their dreams just because they are dreams. It’s a neat piece of storytelling, quickly setting up the group’s overall conflict and jumping right into the heart of things.

Similarly, one of Kirby’s many, many ill-advised attempts to stalk/woo Andie MacDowell’s Dale plays like a cousin to Halloween and Manhunter’s first-person sequences. Kirby is so caught up in his fantasy vision of Dale that he outright does not get how creepy and invasive his behavior is until he’s standing in the middle of a party he was not invited to. Schumacher and Estevez, along with their creative collaborators, bring the audience into Kirby’s point of view without getting lost in it.

And it is here that St. Elmo’s Fire gets interesting to think about. While its obnoxious protagonists are its main focus, theirs is not the only perspective presented. Schumacher takes the time here and there to step outside the main group, to see how the folks around them see them. And it is not a particularly flattering picture. MacDowell’s Dale is at best nonplussed and at worst disturbed by Kirby’s behavior. Partygoers are alarmed and disconcerted when tensions between Leslie and Alec boil over into a vicious argument. Billy similarly manages to get himself expelled from St. Elmo’s bar when the owner sees his fight with his wife Felicia (Jenny Wright) as a fight instead of Billy being Billy.

According to an article by Nick Deriso, Schumacher’s initial idea for what eventually became St. Elmo’s Fire was a pointed critique of youth in the Reagan years. While the finished film is a great deal more affectionate towards the leads, hints of the original sharpness show here and there – particularly towards the end of the picture, when the group begins to face the fact that their lives and their relationships are changing.

As thoroughly insufferable as St. Elmo’s Fire’s lead characters are, the movie does a genuinely excellent job at presenting a key aspect of their relationship with each other. These seven people, deeply flawed as they are, care about one another. It’s not always the healthiest or the deepest care, but it is undeniable. It’s visible in the group’s in-jokes, in their attempts to help each other, in their knowing their friend’s tastes and habits, and to a degree their worries. I don’t like any of St. Elmo’s characters. But I do recognize the bonds they hold with one another, and the way that their fears of growing up and growing apart drive them to cling to one another even past the point that is healthy. I have known folks who want to trap their friendships in amber forever, lest they have to face the terrifying reality of change. St. Elmo’s Fire gets that right. Its ending softens the point, showing the group accepting that they will not be their college selves forever (amongst other things, they leave their college pub to kids who are actually still in college), and perhaps taking steps to be less horrid. But even softened, the point still lands.

I did not enjoy St. Elmo’s Fire, but I am glad to have watched it. I appreciate Joel Schumacher and company’s skill as filmmakers. I salute the cast for doing their darndest to make their gang of louts into people. And to the film’s depiction of loving friendship turning sour through its players’ insistence on its permanence, I say this: well done.

St. Elmo’s Fire Trailer:

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