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“Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” —Ms. Fleming, Heathers
Critic Pauline Kael once called John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club “a movie about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes,” thus distilling an entire career in a single sentence. Hughes’ genius was generalizing the teenage experience enough that everyone thought his movies spoke to them: No teenager fit the exact mold of The Nerd, The Jock, The Princess, etc., but they could see pieces of themselves in every one, and could identify with the angst percolating within each character. And high-school movies post-Hughes have followed the same template, with social complexities and the quirks of individual behavior broadened to a form of cafeteria tribalism where everyone is neatly categorized. There’s some truth to his template—Hughes struck a chord with people, or the Oscars wouldn’t have spent half its 2010 telecast paying homage to him—but only because the net was cast so wide.
Arriving at the end of the ’80s, the deliciously nasty black comedy Heathers works as a critique of Hughes’ brand of high-school movie: It inflates these same stereotypes until they explode. The caste system present in all of these films, with popular kids at the top and nerds on the bottom, here becomes an endless, ruthless, Darwinian struggle that not even murder after murder after murder can resolve. And the types aren’t just present, they’re interchangeable: The ruling clique are all pretty girls named Heather, and the jocks skulk around in varsity jackets, calling people fags. Heathers also has real characters, who rebel in a dark way against the status quo, but it’s smart about recognizing the clichés of high-school movies and satirizing them to the hilt, all while tapping into the genuine frustration of students who are pressured to conform at all costs. Its Westerburg High School looks like no high school and every high school, like The Breakfast Club with even more grotesquely cartoonish dimensions.
Heathers also inducted a Gen-X heroine for the ages in Winona Ryder, whose mix of elfin beauty and world-weary sarcasm proved uniquely bewitching to the eye-rolling set. As Veronica, a reluctant hanger-on in a clique of popular girls named Heather, Ryder plays the audience surrogate, representing the legions of kids who got through high school by cracking wise and keeping a low profile. Though she climbs the social ladder Kind Hearts And Coronets style, Veronica has little in common with the three Heathers, and seems to use them mainly as cover to hide behind. This might mean doing awful things, like forging a love letter as a cruel joke on the morbidly obese Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, or tagging along to a college party swarming with date-raping frat guys, but it isn’t a bad survival tactic, and Veronica is too weak-willed to challenge the status quo.
All that changes when she meets J.D., the new kid in school, played by Christian Slater with smug confidence and a truly bizarre Jack Nicholson-in-One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest lilt. The son of a predatory construction head, J.D. has moved from town to town, and like his psychotic father, has probably left a trail of destruction in his wake. His disrespect for social order immediately endears him to Veronica, who comes to sees him not just as a handsome rebel, but as a man of action, willing to do the radical things she professes to abhor, but secretly craves—to a point, anyway. When J.D. suggests a coffee cup full of liquid Drano as a hangover cure for Heather #1 (Kim Walker, whose über-bitch in this and Say Anything… made her the William Zabka of 1989), Veronica refuses, but a part of her isn’t entirely unhappy when J.D.’s deadly concoction (“I’m a no-rust-build-up man, myself”) is switched for her milk-and-OJ solution.
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He does the killing, she writes the fake suicide notes. After Heather No. 1’s “suicide” goes over smoothly, J.D. ropes an unwitting Veronica into murdering Kurt and Ram, two interchangeable jock bullies whose deaths are staged as a tragic gay-love murder-suicide pact. (J.D.’s sensible rationale: “Football season is over. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except for date rapes and AIDS jokes.”) By this point, Veronica realizes she’s cast her lot with a psycho; in the aftermath of Kurt and Ram’s killing, she punishes herself by scorching her palm with a car lighter, and J.D. reacts by using her hand to light his cigarette. But however unwilling, she’s his accomplice, and she has to ride shotgun (or at least look the other way) on whatever murderous designs he has for Westerburg.
Director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters—who each went on to squander the promise they displayed here—get a lot of mileage out of the dark ironies that follow this spate of suicides. J.D. and Veronica fantasize about upending the social order, but when Heather No. 1 dies, another, even crueler Heather (Shannen Doherty) seizes her red scrunchie and metes out punishment to the weakest, most wounded students in the herd. And when Kurt and Ram’s deaths come shortly after, suicide becomes a bona fide trend, what all the cool kids are doing, possibly supplanting shoulder pads and BBQ corn nuts as the next big thing. And its appeal is heightened when a lame pop single, Big Fun’s “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It),” hits No. 1 on the charts.
Beyond maybe Ryder, the first thing anyone remembers about Heathers is Waters’ dialogue, full of invented language, colorful turns of phrase, and other proto-Diablo Codyisms. Though some of the witticisms are strained and overwritten, the dialogue is surprisingly durable, because made-up teenage slang doesn’t date like the real-life stuff. (It’s appropriate that Waters originally sought out Stanley Kubrick to direct his script, given Kubrick’s previous handling of Anthony Burgess’ made-up slang in A Clockwork Orange.) Catchphrases like “It’ll be very” or “What’s your damage?” have a Valley Girl ring, but they allow Waters to comment self-consciously and hilariously on the inane banter that each generation can call its own. Even when it isn’t manufactured out of whole cloth, the dialogue is loaded with memorably pungent one-liners, most evoking the misery and sadism that goes along with being a teenager. Or, in scenes like this one, picking up on the phony rapport kids have with their clueless parents:
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As for the violence, the links between J.D. and the Columbine killers a decade later are eerily prescient, from the famed trenchcoats to the all-consuming misanthropy to the grand plan to blow up the entire school, rather than targeting just the popular kids. (One of the myths of Columbine is that the killers were going after jock bullies, when opening fire on their fellow students was actually Plan B. Plan A was to one-up Timothy McVeigh.) I make the connection not to suggest Heathers as yet another facile “trigger” for the real-life mêlée—à la Marilyn Manson or violent videogames—but the film does tap into an undercurrent of angst and contempt that’s true to the brutal intensity of high-school life. J.D. goes too far, obviously, but as he tells Veronica after the Kurt-and-Ram murder, when she scolds herself for believing his assurances about non-fatal German bullets, he counters, “Look, you believed it because you wanted to believe it. Your true feelings were too gross and icky for you to face.” And there, in essence, is the gross, icky, and enduring appeal of this black comedy where our heroes bump off their classmates in the hope of a brighter day.
Heathers isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch: The heavily worked-over ending feels frantic and rushed, not the exclamation point it needed to be, and the dialogue occasionally crosses the line between clever and overly pleased with itself. (Call it “The Diablo Cody Threshold.”) Yet coming at the end of the ’80s, Heathers still stands out for questioning the prevailing stereotypes of teen movies rather than accepting them as a given. Two decades later, the Hughes model of teen comedy/dramas is still pervasive, but the goings-on at Westerburg High have only gained in potency, perhaps because so few movies have had the courage (or the approval) to follow Heathers’ lead. “It’s not very subtle,” as J.D. says, “but neither is blowing up a whole school.”
August 19: Buffalo ’66
September 2: American Psycho
September 16: Demonlover