Born: August 29, 1939;

Died: June 22, 2020.

JOEL Schumacher, who has died aged 80 of cancer, was an unusually versatile film-maker, whose work included critically and commercially successful pictures in several genres, including thrillers, romantic comedies, musicals, war and horror movies; he also directed two blockbuster John Grisham adaptations and a pair of Batman films, the second of which has been frequently cited as one of the worst films ever made.

He came to prominence in the second half of the 1980s with three popular films with casts of young actors, many of whom became huge stars. St Elmo’s Fire (1985) was about graduates finding their way in life and featured Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and Andrew McCarthy, who (to Schumacher’s disapproval) were to become known as the “Brat Pack”.

Two years later, The Lost Boys, a comedy horror about teenage vampires in a Californian seaside town, made a star of Kiefer Sutherland and featured the “Two Coreys” – Haim and Feldman – who then appeared in a string of hits together.

Flatliners (1990) was a more serious venture into psychological horror, with a cast that included Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon alongside Sutherland as medical students who launch ill-fated experiments with near-death experiences. It was stylish, and popular at the box office, though critics did not then much like it.

All three films now have strong followings. Cousins (1989), his other film from the period, a charming romantic comedy remake of a French picture with Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini, deserves a wider audience.

Though these films brought Schumacher to widespread attention, he was already in his mid-forties; he had previous directed two comedies, The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) and D.C. Cab (1983), and scripted three films, including Sidney Lumet’s film of The Wiz (1978), the all-black musical reimagining of the Oz stories, as well as a couple of TV movies.

Later work included the critically acclaimed Falling Down (1993) with Michael Douglas; the dark 8mm (1999) and the schlocky The Number 23 (2007), both with Nicolas Cage; the superb, under-rated war drama Tigerland (2000) and Phone Booth (2002), a thriller actually set in a phone booth, both of which starred Colin Farrell; and the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (2004).

His career in the 1970s, however, was as a costume designer, and before that in the fashion world in New York. By his own account, much of his time was spent on drink, drugs, cocktail parties and gay sex; he was once described as having gone to a party at the age of 11 and got home when he was 52. Schumacher claimed to have begun drinking at nine, smoking at 10, and become sexually active around 11; that he had slept with between 10,000 and 20,000 men and spent five years in the 1960s stoned on speed and clad in Speedos.

Joel Schumacher was born on August 29, 1939, in New York City. His father Francis died when he was four, and his mother Marian worked “six days a week and three nights a week” to support them in Long Island. Schumacher grew up on the streets, riding his bike around Manhattan and Queens. “Predators come out the woodwork, my God,” he told Vulture in a revealing interview. “I looked very innocent, but I wasn’t.”

He had, from the start, a prodigious physical tolerance for drink and drugs and, despite his precocious sexual activity, did not regard himself as having been a victim of abuse nor a hustler. Despite his rackety childhood, he won a scholarship to the Parsons New School for Design, where he then won “every prize going”, and obtained a BA from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

As a student, he was already well-known around nightclubs, friendly with leading fashion figures and up-and-coming stars such as Halston, and much admired for his work as a window dresser for Henri Bendel, a prestigious store.

He was recruited to work for Revlon (on $75,000 a year, with a car and driver) but hated corporate life, and quit. Since he had paid no taxes, he had debts of $50,000 and spent much of the 1960s as a beach bum, mainlining speed and methedrine. In the 1970s, he and the gossip columnist Liz Smith shared a flat in New York, where they saved pennies and lived off a 99c Chinese buffet on Third Avenue and the hors d’oeuvres at parties.

But while living “off $2 a day” he had also made his first connection with the film world, designing the costumes for Herbert Ross’s The Last of Sheila (1973), written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and in the same year, Woody Allen’s Sleeper. In 1978, he worked again with Allen on Interiors.

He had begun writing, making his debut with Sparkle and then Car Wash (both 1976) before The Wiz. By the end of the 1990s, he was established as a director whose work was popular and stylish, without being predictable or beset by stylistic tics.

His subsequent fortunes fluctuated. Dying Young (1991), with Julia Roberts, was schmaltzy; Falling Down, though ostensibly a thriller about a man snapping after a divorce and redundancy, was widely seen as an acute observation about the state of America, and critically lauded.

The Client (1994) and A Time To Kill (1996) were solid adaptations of Grisham’s legal thrillers, and Batman Forever, with Val Kilmer – “psychotic” – and Nicole Kidman, had the best opening box-office weekend of 1995. But the $160 million sequel, Batman & Robin, with George Clooney replacing Kilmer and featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman as the baddies, was widely derided. It abruptly ended the Warner Bros franchise (until Christopher Nolan relaunched the series), was the lowest-grossing Batman movie to date, and is frequently described as one of the worst films ever made.

Bad Company (2002), with Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock, suffered from its terrorist-centred plot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Schumacher wrote and directed Flawless (1999), a formulaic comedy drama which had good performances from Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but got a mixed reception; Veronica Guerin (2003) was a biopic of the murdered Irish journalist, starring Cate Blanchett; his final film was 2011’s Trespass, a pedestrian, straight-to-video thriller with Cage and Kidman.

Schumacher was gossipy and sociable, and was particularly admired for his casting of young actors and his supportive role in advancing their careers.