“Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.”
‘Heathers’ (1989) is a surreal horror film, a dark romance cum black comedy that is a nihilistic kaleidoscope shedding its own unusual light on the usual high school issues of fitting in, cliques, sexuality, and popularity while hitting on deeper issues of the way people deal with death.
In tone, it’s the missing link between The Breakfast Club and Natural Born Killers. To get a sense of its underlying vibe, though, you have to first watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and then A Clockwork Orange (yes, in that order). While the filmmaking is clearly not on par with Kubrick, in the 22 years since its release it’s become a classic of ‘dark comedy,’ a ‘cult’ film that attempts to make high art out of tragedy and humor out of the grotesque. It’s a passive-aggressive art piece for the outcasts.
Full disclosure: My band in college used the ‘Eskimo’ line from this movie as the title for our first album. I remember howling in laughter when I originally saw this film. For a young person, this film seems amazingly transgressive and raw. Seeing it many years later, I have a little different take on it.
I won’t say this film is naive, but from one point of view, Heathers could seem like a flick that purports to solve all of the world’s problems through the metaphor of a high school, envisioning a world where different social classes can somehow, in the end, get along. But from another point of view, it’s a revenge flick, evening the score for all the real and perceived sins incurred through the awkward adolescent years.
The film fixates, philosophically, on a young Christian Slater as J.D., the son of a heartless construction magnate. He’s been moved around from city to city. The Mom is out of the picture. Now he’s a loner, a bad boy motorcycle hound who scares the bullying jocks in the lunchroom by pulling a gun. It’s one of those scenes as in Crocodile Dundee when he pulls a machete on the would-be robbers and utters the line, “Now, THIS is a knife.”
The film intends J.D. to be a hero. These days, of course, he would’ve been pulled from school or jailed, but in this reality, there are no consequences. The school administration are buffoonish authoritarians save the stereotypical “hippy” bleeding heart teacher who just wants everyone to emote and get in touch with their feelings. These are Charlie Brown cartoon adults, just missing the “whaaa whaa whaaaa wha wah” non-dialogue.
The dialogue present, though, generally speaking, is the film’s strength. While the plot spins out of control by the second act, writer Dan Waters crafts witty interjections and one-liners that resonate from scene to scene creating an alternate reality of kids too cool for school.
Unfortunately, few of the characters have the depth for their quips to be anything more than throwaway lines. And, as the characters start dying one by one (in reality and dream sequences), like all horror films, we begin to care less and less as we follow the film from the eyes of the killer.
Through the entire first act, J.D. leads Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, on a series of killings based on juvenile grudges just as shallow as anything J.D. is railing against. We are meant to cheer him on because the characters getting killed are the ‘bad guys’ or, in some cases, the ‘mean girls’. But because we are set up to care about J.D., we are looking for a real rhyme or reason to J.D.’s homicidal impulses. He stood up for himself against more clearly defined villains (the typical bully jocks). He gets the girl, the heroine of the film. So what makes him tick?
There are only hints that his transient childhood and lack of maternal presence may have made him grow up too fast. Maybe his penchant for killing is his reaction to not understanding any of the half-baked religion and philosophy he’s been reading. His ability to woo Veronica, however, gives us the impression that he has some redeeming features. Few handsome leading men end the film quite the way J.D. does here.
At first, the romance between J.D. and Veronica seems genuine, but it doesn’t take long before we (and, finally, Veronica) see that J.D. is, in fact, a deranged, egomaniacal lunatic. During the second act, Veronica spends her time wisely pushing him away. Then, in the finale, although she has to fight J.D. to a bloody climax, she seems to have a strange affinity for his cause. She relishes in his final act of senseless rebellion, a suicide bombing in front of the school. It’s a shocking end to an otherwise senseless film.
Strangely enough, Waters’ original ending was supposedly rejected by the film company for being “too dark”, which is odd considering the ending that made the film. Veronica literally lights her cigarette in the flames of J.D.’s exploding carcass. The original ending, never filmed, has Veronica seeming to blow herself up after killing J.D., followed by a prom in Heaven where all the characters reunite in eternal bliss.
Why the prom idea wasn’t used is puzzling, since it seems like an upbeat ending. There was certainly nothing to cheer at in J.D.’s suicide, but nothing to be sad about either. It plays now as sort of a terrorism tactic with no real targets and no real value (the school is left standing). (This is clearly not a film that could have been made after September 11, 2001).
The weak ending is really the final crazy loose strings of a plot that began to unravel just after the first victim, Heather #1 is killed in a staged suicide. It’s unclear whether the film is trying to be for or against homophobia when J.D. kills his next victims, with a duped Victoria’s help. What she thinks is going to be accomplished by helping him in his plans against the two bullying jocks are puzzling. These are the same two hapless fellows who J.D. already scared in the cafeteria. Now he’s finishing them off.
For a teen with an above average IQ, Victoria seems easily led and confused. Maybe it’s the filmmaker’s keen recognition of how teens can easily fall to peer pressure, of their emotional vulnerability despite budding intellectual prowess. But, we don’t see enough of Veronica’s intelligent side to get this idea. Instead, there’s just a brief mention of how she was considered for early promotion to high school. The rest is my own speculation.
At the end, J.D. says he’s blowing up the school because “nobody loves me and I feel so alone” while also trying to make it sound like he’s trying to bring everyone closer together by having them congregate in the afterlife. But, by this time in the movie, his avenging, dark angel schtick has degenerated into a mish mash of hachneyed apocalyptic bullshit. He’s alienated Veronica as a result of his violent impulses, so it’s a little late to say he wasn’t loved. She loved him until he started insisting on shooting everything in sight and plotting to kill everyone she knows.
He says, “Let’s face it, the only place different social types can genuinely get along with each another is in heaven.” Really? It’s the only point in the movie where the dialogue is clearly apropos of teenaged mixed-up emotional nonsense and not chock full of comedic dark irony (ala’ the famous “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” line delivered by Kim Walker as Heather #1). But J.D.’s martyrdom belies the fact that he is a cold-blooded killer. His theory that this small town Ohio high school somehow embodies all of what’s wrong with society as a whole is dim, at best.
Depending on your point of view, ‘Heathers’ is about being kind to those who are different. The overweight, unpopular girl is befriends by Veronica at the end. Some, though, will see the film and get the impression that the core message is ‘there is power in killing’. It’s clearly what J.D. believes. Yet if we call this film a ‘black comedy’ we can say that it’s all in fun. It’s a joke. Just the normally beleaguered artsy types blowing off steam.
But there’s not enough slapstick. Not enough true humor. The world created here is recognizable – cruel high school kids. But then it goes one step further – a cruel anti-hero who doesn’t really care who he hurts. That’s not funny.
It’s worth mentioning that, in the 30-minute documentary, ‘Swatch Dogs and Diet Cokeheads’, about the making of the film, Shannen Doherty, who plays Heather Duke, says she never knew it was supposed to be a comedy until seeing the final cut of the film.
Comedy? Dark romance? Whatever it’s genre, Heathers’ slim redeeming message arrives there on the legs of remorseless violence. Even Veronica, at the end, shows no guilt for her part in the killings that occur. In the end, the film’s overall philosophy is best expressed through its theme song, ‘Que Sera Sera’ (which appears in two different version, one by Sly and The Family Stone, the other by Syd Straw): “Whatever will be, will be.”
The Good: Memorable dialogue, Winona Ryder’s compelling performance, Christian Slater’s Jack Nicholson impression. Cool soundtrack.
The Bad: A weak plot and weak characterization. Vague platitudes about social class and human kindness supported by inane death and violence with ultimately, a nihilistic philosophy hinting at religion as its source.
Best Viewed By: Students of Film and Philosophy.
Pet Peeve: Rampant encouragement of smoking.
Film’s Hidden Message: Don’t commit suicide at once. Do it through the slow, agonizing progression of lung cancer.