Celebrating Heathers

Steven rhapsodises about a late-eighties movie that turned the 'high school comedy' on its head...

Trouble brewing.

Daniel Water’s script for 1989’s Heathers must have seemed like gold dust to all involved. Deliberately an anti-John Hughes movie and filled with the type of made up school lingo that has been imitated (to poor effect) by many a high school comedy to follow.

This is the type of cult fan favourite that is hard not to love or even admire. But even harder to explain why it may actually be your favourite film of all time (especially when it’s sitting right next to the likes of Blade Runner, Vertigo, and even Citizen Kane on your list). But come on! What doesn’t it have? Laughs, dark humour, dumb humour, childish dialogue, clever dialogue, invested dialogue, great performances, surreal dimensions, beautiful direction, a haunting score, questionable undertones and an explosive finale!

Heathers is jammed in the middle of Hollywood and Indie film conventions. You can’t buy dialogue like “My son’s a homosexual, and I love him. I LOVE MY DEAD GAY SON!!!!!!”I’m not going to do any more quotes – I’ll be here forever. Those that know this film know what they all are. Those yet to experience the film are best to find them out themselves. Rest assured that the dialogue is so witty and sharp it could decapitate a clown.

Heathers was made in the late 80’s by then new director Michael Lehmann, producer Denise Di Novi and writer Daniel Waters. Water’s created a rather un-PC take on school life that was far removed from the “High School Comedy” conventions that were abundant at that time.

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Winona Ryder

In this film you have some very blunt confrontations provided by some slick and unforgiving teen cliques within the school. We see parents and teachers inability to gel with their own students – perhaps living in their own fantasy land as the teenagers are forced to survive in a wave of emotional and social turmoil. This extends to peer-pressure from both adults and students alike, pressures of sex, date rape and eventually murder and suicide. And this is a comedy!

Ok it’s a very black comedy, but you are never in any danger of suspecting that the film is anything but that. Its colourful visual style extends beyond the lens to the costumes and make up of the actors on screen, along with the undated dialogue which expresses clearly that we are in a world of the blackest humour available to human kind.

The set up is fairly simple itself. Winona Ryder plays Veronica Sawyer, part of a popular clique of junior high school girls (The rest of them are all named Heather). Under pressure to live and abide by certain conventions, Veronica soon makes the choice to abandon these rules and save her soul instead of conforming to the pressures listed above.

The clique

She is aided in her quest by new guy in town, rebel, J.D (Christian Slater). His novel approach to dealing firstly with the school jocks (pointing a gun at them in a busy dinning hall and firing blanks directly into their faces) and then the Heathers’ themselves leads down a dark path of murder that Veronica gets embroiled in.

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Faking the deaths as suicides, the chaos continues in the wake of how both the adult and student worlds react to the deaths. This in turn makes the deceased more popular than ever, and the living more deluded than ever. Worst of all it sets JD further down a dark path that Veronica knows she cannot follow.

There are far too many scenarios portrayed here so cleverly that ring true of they way boys and girls can interact with each other at such a difficult age. But it is Water’s sly interpretation of these events that give them a wild edge. Self mutilation is even addressed. Sitting in a car, depressed with herself at what she has done, Veronica put the cigarette lighter out of the car and stabs it into her palm. What Waters then does is not to have a reacting JD look at it with tender care, but to toss the lighter away from her and then light his own cigarette off the wound! Priceless!

Oh dear.

The ending is a puzzle, as the DVD extra “Alternate Ending” illustrates with a script version of a rather fantastical afterlife ending. Veronica was originally supposed to have shot and killed JD in the basement of the school, and then blown herself up at the end – this then leads into a prom in heaven where everyone is dancing and getting on with each other. Fair enough, if a bit out of tone with the rest of the dark humour. But if we had that ending – what would we have lost from the one we do have?

Well ok, the whole Veronica and Martha “lets pop some popcorn” credit roll caused a bit of a frown, but immediately before this is one of the films strongest (if not the strongest) scenes. JD is shot, but he survives long enough for one more final confrontation on the school steps that sees him give up his own life accepting defeat, and thus becoming the one true suicide that the movie presents.

The rising camera crane shot behind him as he opens his arms up to embrace death with Veronica on the steps in the background is a beautiful shot; heightened further by the swelling score from David Newman. And as much as it is a beautiful cinematic moment, it is also downright hilarious, as Veronica quite casually slips a cigarette between her lips and waits for him to light her with his explosive demise (Sweet revenge for the earlier moment in the car, and as true to the dark humour in the rest of Waters script). So to be honest – I’ll suffer the Martha Dumptruck jolly moment afterwards every time just so long as I can see that moment instead of the prom from heaven as originally scripted.

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