Heathers

While Diner remains probably the most influential film of the 80s, inspiring everything from Swingers to any piece of Tarantino dialogue ever written since, Heathers could lay a legitimate claim to being the most influential teen movie of the decade.

Who on earth would have expected that of a film that not only opens with the downright surreal image of three girls knocking croquet balls into a partially buried Winona Ryder’s head, but emerged in the decade of decidedly more universal teen movies? And yet, 25 years later, contemporary phenomena like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remain as locked in the 80s as Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, yet it is nearly impossible to describe Heathers now without referencing some of its modern day progeny. Without Heathers there would be no Clueless, no Mean Girls, no Jennifer’s Body. It is Death Becomes Her meets To Die For, Heavenly Creatures meets Clueless, and Heathers is what would have been produced if Pretty in Pink bred with Beetlejuice (the scene in Heathers which Winona Ryder apparently comes back to life after hanging herself is pure Beetlejuice which came out the year before.)

It is as quotable as Clueless (“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw”, “Grow up, Heather – bulimia is so 87”) but as unapologetically surreal as Edward Scissorhands. It works so perfectly on its own strange unique terms that it is perhaps unsurprising that the director Michael Lehman and screenwriter Daniel Waters were never able to repeat the success again (their next project together was Hudson Hawk which just goes to show how easily amazingness can elide into awfulness.)

While John Hughes’ films only hinted at the problems created when teenagers feel they have to act like their parents’ parents – and these were problems that were generally resolved by the purchase of a prom dress or a meaningful day in detention – Heathers gleefully takes this to the dislocative extreme, starting with J.D. (Christian Slater) and his father enacting some kind of swapped role play and concluding with J.D. taking an evil delight in his father’s fondness for blowing up buildings, a delight born more out of revenge for his father’s manslaughter of J.D.’s mother. Where Ferris Bueller was a fantasy of teenage life, Heathers is the nightmare, in which all the familiar teen film tropes are exaggerated, depicted in garish colours and, both literally and metaphorically, blown up. The camera angles are often awkward and wonky, swooping in that little bit too closely, pointing up towards people’s faces that little bit too gawkily. The effect overall is that of a classic teen film gone wrong, which is absolutely is, but in the best possible way.

As is de rigeur with 80s teen movies, all the usual types are on show in the high school: the jocks, the nerds, the bullied fat girl, the uptight principal, the laughable liberal teacher, and so on. But the film then exaggerates and undermines them to the extreme, the most obvious example of that being the fact that the three cool girls all have the same name, a joke any other film would instantly have jettisoned as being confusing but works perfectly here as a typically exaggerated point to emphasise the interchangeable nature of cool girls in high schools, a truth JD reiterates at disaffected length.

The other obvious example is when the two Biff-like jocks are murdered by JD and Veronica in such a way to make people believe that they were gay lovers (Jennifer’s Body shamelessly copies that joke.) It’s a neat piece of jazzhands on the part of Daniel Waters to distract from the fact that Veronica has committed a murder every bit as heinous as J.D. has done. Up to now, J.D. was the cute but clearly crazy new boy whose craziness Veronica was determinedly underestimating, even when he poisoned her frenemy in front of her very eyes. Now she’s the one who has pulled the trigger, and after she knew that the bullets – contrary to J.D.’s promise – were real.

“You believed it because you wanted to believe it!” yells J.D. and, in this instance, he’s absolutely right. OK, so that boy liked to spend his evenings pushing cows in a field and having sex in piles of manure, but he still didn’t deserve to die. By throwing in the comedy aftermath to the two boys’ deaths (“I love my dead gay son!”) the movie ensures audiences are too busy laughing at the black humour to be too repelled by – or take too seriously – the questionable morality of the protagonist.

Certainly there are elements in the film that date it. The girls’ clothes, most obviously: Shannen Doherty’s band jacket, Ryder’s long waistcoats, the shoulder pads. There is also the extended riff on mineral water signifying homosexuality, a common joke in 80s movies (think of Rick Moranis’ Louis’ love of mineral water in Ghostbusters) which only goes to show how far the world has moved on since that decade and not – in the opinion of some 80s films blogs – necessarily for the better. Also, it’s unlikely a black comedy would be made now about a killer student.

But in the main, this is an incredibly timeless film, partly because it is so weird and mainly because of Ryder.

Oh Winona! Truly you were the great cinematic casualty of the 90s, once delightfully ubiquitous and then, for no apparent reason, appearing in absolutely nothing of note after 1993’s Girl, Interrupted. Such was Ryder’s fame in her day and her reputation as an 80s and 90s pop icon now that it’s easy to overlook just how good she actually was, for she was very, very good. Slater was good in this film (and so cute – I’d forgotten just how cute Slater really once was), but it’s Ryder who carries the movie, investing it with the same ‘Twisted Innocent’ quality that she brought to Beetlejuice and would later be mined by Tim Burton to timeless effect in Edward Scissorhands, the 90s answer to The Princess Bride.Here, Ryde a very tricky role of a protagonist who dabbles in darkness but then swiftly returns, who is undeniably attracted to her murderous boyfriend but wrenches herself away from him just in time. It’s impossible to think of any other actress who could have played Veronica other than her (whereas it is quite easy to imagine many other actors playing JD, such as Robert Downey Jr, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, C Thomas Howell, James Spader, and that’s just off the top of my head.)

I recently interviewed Slater for the paymaster and he admitted that he had a massive crush on Ryder during the making of Heathers but was too shy to say anything. (Who knew Slater was shy?) Perhaps this is what gives their onscreen relationship its surprising imbalance, with all power clearly in Veronica’s court, despite JD’s extensive arsenal of murder weapons.

Heathers is not an obviously feminist film, but it is a movie in which a girl breaks away from a social group that makes her feel bad about herself, and from a boyfriend who convinces her to do things that make her hate herself. Veronica ends single, and that’s just fine – how many films today dare to end on such a note? The final scene, in which the camera zooms upwards as Veronica calmly watches JD blow himself up, cigarette dangling from her ash-blown face, is as thrilling and triumphant as, say, the last scene of Thelma and Louise.

At the time, Heathers must have looked like a quirky final gasp of the teen film genre that had been so popular in the decade. Now, it looks like the obvious bridge between the 80s and 90s, taking moviegoers from Pretty in Pink to Edward Scissorhands. But it turned out to be more than just a bridge but a template-setting piece of genius, one that looks like a reaction against the decade from which it emerged and became one of the ultimate teen movies and chick flicks. Even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz owe, I suspect, something to Heathers as, like the latter, they combine murder and banality, the surrealist comedy arises from the apparently easy mix. And just like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Jennifer’s Body, the killings in Heathers have a kind of exaggerated symbolism (as Veronica notes in her diary, “My teen angst bullshit has a bodycount.”) But Heathers’ deaths can also be seen on their own terms: they are plausible murders in a school carried out by at least one unhappy and angry teenage boy and in that sense Heathers anticipates a far darker and sadder American trend that took off outside of the movies, and one the filmmakers could never have anticipated.

This was the film that dared to show the dark side of teen years, and it was one far darker than anything Judd Nelson ever conjured up.

Next week: Big

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10 thoughts on “Heathers

  1. Cracking stuff, and spot on about how different it feels from the ‘typical’ 80s teen movie – in fact without checking I probably would have put it down as early 90s.

    Jennifer’s Body is an interesting comparison. Heathers manages the trick of taking dark material, but keeping a light enough touch to keep it fun. For me, Jennifer’s Body failed to do that and was a fairly grim watch.

  2. By the way, is Louis gay? I’d never picked that up, clearly I need to watch Ghostbusters three or four more times to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

  3. Of all the 80s teen movies, this is the oen I’ve revisited the most and still keep coming back to for all the reasons you list above. Oh, and to laugh at the Heather’s clothes (in the full knowledge that I commented similar and worse sartorial crimes in that decade).

    And as for, “I’d forgotten just how cute Slater really once was …”, well, I fell for him in Name Of The Rose and his performance in Heathers sealed the deal. It’s always the bad-ass that makes a girl’s heart beat faster.

  4. Heathers is my favourite teen film of the 80s. Much darker than anything by Hughes, and by then I was old enough to appreciate a little black humour. Slater was never cuter (although he was delectable in Pump Up The Volume too). Ryder was a film star I could relate to: quirky, grumpy and brunette.
    Can’t wait until next week. Love love love Big!
    Good work, HF.

  5. I’ll never get tired of watching Heathers. Considering the subject matter it’s actually surprising the film is as funny as it, must have been a difficult balance to achieve, so full credit to the makers for that. Great review, sums up why the film has endeared so very well! (Well, I reckon in another 30 years Heathers will still be remembered, Jennifer’s Body, not so much).

  6. Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you However I am experiencing issue with ur rss . Dont know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnk

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