R, 1990, 111 minutes, closed-captioned, RCA/Columbia Home Video, $91.95.
This breathtakingly sumptuous haunted house of a movie takes off where Dracula, Dante and God left off and CPR began. Got up in nu-Gothic drag, "Flatliners" is a metaphysical code blue, a provocative attempt to resuscitate the nation's spiritual dynamism. In a university teaching hospital that looks like a medical cathedral, five ambitious student doctors secretly explore the afterlife by dying for minutes at a time. Kiefer Sutherland, as the Dr. Jekyll of the '90s, goes first and is revived by his colleagues -- Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt. What Sutherland neglects to tell them is that something has followed him back to this dimension. And they soon learn, as mad scientists have through time immemorial, that one doesn't mess with Mr. G. Reaper. Ranging from vivid to over the edge, the performances do seem in keeping with the psychedelic rococo of the scenery and music. Fans of "The Lost Boys" will be familiar with director Joel Schumacher's luxuriantly loopy approach to Peter Filardi's screenplay, which takes an almost childlike look at sinning. "Flatliners" is a jazzy Sunday school lesson. -- Rita Kempley
1987, in German with subtitles, 91 minutes, Home Vision, $39.95.
Alban Berg's taut, brutal masterpiece has all the impact of a tabloid headline -- "SOLDIER SLAYS GIRL, SELF" -- and the Vienna State Opera production, with Claudio Abbado conducting, is one of the most powerful opera performances I have ever seen. "Wozzeck" is the story of a poor, simple man destroyed by forces that he can neither understand nor control, including his own erotic and psychological needs and the demands of a society that has made him an outsider. It is told in a libretto that has not a single superfluous syllable, with superbly crafted music of shattering impact. It was terribly controversial when it was new in 1925, and even today it may shock many admirers of Mozart and Puccini. The Vienna production was tailor-made for video, with the Staatsoper's large stage scaled down to proportions that would work well on a small screen, and on this tape the performance is even more effective than it was live on the opening night (which I attended). There are no weaknesses in the cast; particularly strong performances are given by Franz Grundheber in the title role and Hildegard Behrens, with excellent work by Heinz Zednick, Aage Haugland, Walter Raffeiner and Philip Langridge in smaller parts. This tape is basic for collectors of serious opera. -- Joseph McLellan
PG, 1990, 92 minutes, Warner Home Video, $92.95.
If fairy tales teach coping, then "The Witches" gets a poisoned apple for a job well done. A wickedly funny final bow from executive producer Jim Henson, this intriguing children's story from Roald Dahl focuses on a 9-year-old orphan's set-to with a convocation of northern European witches. After his parents are killed in a car accident, Luke (Jasen Fisher) moves with his nine-fingered Norwegian Granny (Mai Zetterling) to England where they encounter the witches at a grand old seashore hotel. Alas, their stay coincides with the meeting of the witches, a scary lot of wart-faced hags who hide their real identities underneath ordinary masks and plain wigs. Anjelica Huston rides her broomstick over the top as the Grand High Witch, who, disguised as the philanthropic president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, hatches a fiendish plot against the children of England. Luke, whom she has turned into a talking mouse, works with Granny to prevail against Her Grand Terribleness, a magnificently imperious brew of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Show White's stepmother, toil, trouble, eye of newt and bubble bubble. Nicolas Roeg directs this beguiling variation on "My Life as a Dog." Parents should consider reviewing the video in advance of showing it to impressionable young children. -- Rita Kempley
R, 1990, 113 minutes, closed-captioned, Live Home video, $92.95.
Roger Spottiswoode's "Air America" is partly glorious, partly junk, but unfortunately not in equal parts. The picture takes place in Laos in 1969. Its heroes are renegade pilots working for the CIA who are happy to fly whatever cargo they are asked to fly -- rice, pigs, guns, cocaine. Their employer -- ostensibly -- is Air America, and they live by its motto, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime." "Trouble junkies" is how Gene (Mel Gibson), the group's unofficial leader, describes them. Working from a script by Richard Rush and John Eskow, Spottiswoode's community of head-case misfits are cooled-out '60s updates of the daredevil pilots who flew headlong in raging storms in Howard Hawks's "Only Angels Have Wings." Most of these guys are rejects. Billy (Robert Downey Jr.), for example, is a former traffic copter pilot for a Los Angeles radio station who pulled a low-flying stunt that cost him his license. Where this movie excels is in its grasp of the absurdity that binds these pilots together. Too often, though, the movie collapses into routine action high jinks. What carries us through a lot of this is the comfy rapport between the two stars. As an unpredictable gambling wild man, Gibson seems to be mostly coasting, running variations on earlier characters. Still, he's playing a kind of masculine ideal here, and there's grace and assurance in his laid-back style. Gibson is perfectly matched with Downey, who's wilder and more youthfully kinetic. They give the movie wings. -- Hal Hinson
R, 1989, 118 minutes, Live Home Video, $89.95.
Another entry in the Mickey Rourke museum of the bizarre. Playing a genetic scrambling of a prizefighter, based partly on "Raging Bull's" Jake La Motta and some reincarnation of Karloff's Frankenstein monster as a lonesome cowpoke, Rourke adds a dribble of terbacky juice to his usual array of 40-weight cosmetics. The character, whose name is Johnny Walker, fights without technique, skill or regard for bodily harm; he's a common brawler, but there's such ferocity in his flailings that he attracts the eye of a small-time promoter and scam artist named Wesley (Christopher Walken), who also moonlights as a lounge singer. Neither character makes the slightest lick of sense, nor does the story director Michael Seresin ventures to tell. At best guess, it's an existential working-out of something or other -- something about human suffering, but that's just a blind stab. Strangely enough, the sheer outrageousness of the performances holds your interest. The work of these two actors goes light-years beyond peculiar. Both Rourke and Walken are sky-dancers; they're not breathing the same air as the rest of us, and with Rourke especially you suspect that perhaps not all his organs are human. The movie ascends to the level of the classically horrible. -- Hal Hinson