Talking Movies

August 14, 2018

Heathers: colour me impressed

Heathers is running in the Lighthouse cinema all this week as part of a major 30th anniversary re-release that’s also playing at the BFI Southbank.

“Dear Diary, my teenage angst bullsh*t now has a body-count”. If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the teen movie that represents the boundless self-actualising optimism that Ronald Reagan wanted in an America where it was always morning in America, then Heathers was the counter-punch of Generation X cynicism and pessimism. There are three girls called Heather and an adopted member Veronica who rule the corridors of Westerberg High till a betrayal from within leads to a violent disintegration for the in-crowd. A film this biting and such a glorious one-off in the careers of writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann (who moved into script-doctoring and TV directing respectively) could only have come from deep personal bitterness. Winona Ryder stole Beetlejuice from the grown-ups and Christian Slater did the same in The Name of the Rose before they teamed up. Heathers is that rarity, a teen film with teen leads, who are an electric pairing. Winona lived off her performance as Veronica Sawyer for years and Slater did the same off his portrayal of JD, an inch-perfect impersonation of Jack Nicholson.

All the stock characters are present for this dark trip through American high-school life, which takes place in the pre-Columbine ear as is obvious from the muted reaction to the stunt played by JD in his memorable introduction. The stoners, the jocks: “Hey Ram, doesn’t this cafeteria have a no fags allowed rule? JD: Well, they seem to have an open door policy for assholes though don’t they”. The nerds, the airhead bitches: “God, aren’t they fed yet? Do they even have Thanksgiving in Africa? Veronica: Oh, sure. Pilgrims, Indians… Tator Tots. It’s a real party continent”. The hippie teacher, the deranged principal: “I’ve seen a lot of bullshit… angel dust, switchblades, sexually perverse photographs involving tennis rackets”. But these familiar elements are served up in the most vicious teen comedy ever. Instead of putting up with the ritual social humiliations JD and Veronica, after an initial accidental death, begin killing their enemies and make it look like suicide (courtesy of some underlined meaningful passages in Moby Dick, or in one memorable case simply the enigmatic word ‘Eskimo’.). Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than the interior monologues of the various characters. At the first funeral Heather Duke speaks to God: “I prayed for the death of Heather Chandler many times and I felt bad every time I did it but I kept doing it anyway. Now I know you understood everything. Praise Jesus, Hallelujah”.

Anyone who’s ever been picked on in school knows why Heathers is such a cult classic. This film is almost a proto-Fight Club. Superficially Veronica is happy with her life as one of The Heathers. However secretly she hates it, and herself, and when JD arrives at the school he offers Veronica a violent outlet for all her darkest impulses. She writes in her diary: “Suicide gave Heather depth, Kurt a soul, and Ram a brain. I don’t know what it’s given me, but I have no control over myself when I’m with J.D. Are we going to prom or to hell?” Just like Tyler’s Project Mayhem eventually JD’s plan to blow up the school after sneakily getting a petition for mass-suicide signed by everybody proves too much for Veronica to go along with. JD could be like Camus’ take on the ultimate excesses of nihilism: it is not enough to kill myself, everybody else has to die too. And that’s where Veronica rips up the ticket and gets off the ride, because Generation X were damaged romantics not nihilists. If you thought Mean Girls was the sharpest high-school film ever then you like, so need to watch Heathers. Your reaction should be something along the lines of JD’s legendary final words: “Colour me impressed”.

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