Sunday, October 14, 2012

Movie – Heathers (1989)

“Dear Diary: My teen angst bullshit now has a bodycount.”

If any one line from the movie Heathers can possibly sum up what a viewer should expect in both plot and presentation, it may be that one.  When Heathers burst on the scene at the end of the 1980s it was the anti-John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles) teen movie.  It showed teenagers as the venal, vicious, violent little creatures that they can be…and put a smile on your face while doing it.  Think the Mean Girls (2004) were mean?  They were pussycats compared to the Heathers in this film.  It is an irreverent, funny, very dark, “they did not just do that” kind of movie.

The film opens with the three Heathers (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannen Doherty) holding croquet mallets, their clothes coordinated with the colors they are playing in the game.  Each takes a turn hitting their ball and the final one is shown bouncing off the head of Veronica (Winona Ryder), who is buried in the ground up to her neck.  The friend I was watching this with the first time said, “what the f*ck?”  It turns out it was a dream sequence, but it is a great way to let people know that they are not going to be watching the normal, nice teen movie they had been used to seeing.

Veronica is a recent convert to the popular crowd at Westerburg High.  She used to be best friends with Betty (Renee Estevez) – “Betty and Veronica”, get it? – but she has changed her image and is now allowed to be a part of the Heathers.  These three girls run the school, and Heather Chandler (Walker) runs the Heathers.  As she tells Veronica, “They all want me as a friend or a fuck.  I’m worshipped at Westerburg, and I’m only a Junior.”  And those may be the least in your face sentences to come out of this Heather’s mouth.  She gets a ton of great, caustic lines, many of which would not be allowed to make it to a broadcast version of this film.

One day a new kid arrives on the scene.  His name is J.D. (Christian Slater) and he’s bounced from one school to another.  He’s seen both the terrorizing girls and aggressive jocks and he’s not scared of either.  He makes an early impression by pulling a gun on the two jocks harassing him and firing blanks at both of them.  Veronica, who secretly shares a lot of J.D.’s disdain for her friends, is fascinated by him.

It’s not long before he convinces Veronica to play a prank on the lead Heather.  He talks about getting Heather to drink drain cleaner to make her throw up.  Veronica is hesitant; wouldn’t that kill her?  J.D. appears to back off, but mixes it in anyway.  Veronica may or may not know that J.D. did this, but she hands it to Heather, who drinks it and promptly falls over dead.

Veronica panics, but J.D. calms her down and convinces her to help him make it look like a suicide.  To Veronica’s disgust, pretty much every person who this Heather ever terrorized or humiliated, and who hated her for it, suddenly can’t say enough positive things about her now that they believe she has “tragically” committed suicide.

Having gotten her to do this, J.D. now ups the ante by convincing Veronica to join him in scaring the two jocks again.  He gets her to fire a gun at one of them with “Ich luge” (German for “I’m lying”) bullets which supposedly won’t pierce the skin.  Once again, Veronica may or may not know J.D. is lying, but she goes along with it anyway.  They stage it to look like the two jocks killed each other in a gay lovers’ suicide pact, complete with significantly underlined passages in a book, and a bottle of mineral water.  Once again, the outpouring of false emotion over these two who, in J.D.’s words “offered the world nothing more than a succession of date rapes and fart jokes” sickens Veronica.

She’s done with J.D. now, though.  She realizes just how dangerous he is, even to herself.  Meanwhile, J.D. has moved on to Heather Duke (Doherty) to convince her to take up the mantle of Queen Bitch and head Heather at the school.  He’s grooming her for his next takedown.  Veronica realizes it is up to her to find out what J.D. is planning.  It turns out to be nothing less than a fake suicide pact by the entire school, which J.D. is planning to blow up during a pep rally.  Will Veronica try to stop him?  Does she even want to stop him?

This movie had so many subversive things running through it, many of them in the background, that it takes repeated viewings to catch many of them.  In addition to the aforementioned guns in school, a bomb in school, murder, and teen suicides, there is also strip croquet, giving oral sex to college students to increase your popularity, date rape in the background of a scene, and so many other things going on – most of it played as darkly humorous - that it would probably make a studio president’s head explode if someone came to them with this movie now.  I mean, what film made today would show a teen girl cutting herself by burning her palm with a car’s cigarette lighter…and then the teen love interest lighting his cigarette off the still hot burn on her palm?

And as dark as this movie was, it originally had an even darker ending than what finally made it to the screen.  Read the trivia on this film on IMDB sometime if you want to know how it was planned to end before the studio intervened.

This movie also has a ton of pop culture references, some of which are probably now getting lost on current audiences who are not old enough to get them.  In return, this film was highly influential on so many movies to follow, as well as on pop culture references back to it (i.e. Rolling Stone published Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide note under the title “Football Season is Over” – a reference to the line J.D. says after killing the two jocks.

On the other end of the spectrum, this film had two young cast members die in ways that can’t help but remind people of this movie.  Kim Walker (the lead Heather) had a line in the film where she asked someone if they had eaten a brain tumor for breakfast.  She died of a brain tumor in 2001.  And cast member Jeremy Applegate, who played a teen boy in the film, committed suicide in 2000.

This film made both Winona Ryder and Christian Slater stars.  Ryder does a great job with a role that is far outside the norm of teen characters.  Slater deliberately channels Jack Nicholson for his character, right down to the voice and mannerisms.  And really, who better to model yourself on when playing a psychotic character?  These are probably the roles that both will be best remembered for, even Ryder with her two Oscar nominations for other films. 

Heathers is not the kind of movie to watch if you do not like dark humor, nor is it one to see if you think teenagers should be a little goofy or a little angsty, but not anything too extreme.  For everyone else, especially teens of today, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Great review. Coincidentally I just recorded a podcast episode on this movie. It was great to watch it again.

    1. I've seen it at least 4 times over the years and I've enjoyed myself just as much every time.

  2. Nice review Chip. I didn't love the movie because it takes it's subject a bit too seriously by the end, but still has some funny laughs with itself and features Ryder and Slater at the top of their game. Wish that's how it was for these guys nowadays.

    1. Yeah, both are still working, but in smaller movies and/or smaller supporting roles.

  3. I love dark humor -- the only thing here that would really bother me is date rape being used for comic effect. I guess it's odd that I find that offensive, yet I can take comedies about murder. :-)

    This sounds like a movie I might try sometime, but not without a couple of drinks in my system.

    1. To be honest, I never even noticed the date rape in the background of a scene until I was listening to the commentary and Winona Ryder pointed it out. You may not even notice it if/when you watch this movie.

      "I guess it's odd that I find that offensive, yet I can take comedies about murder."

      I've noticed a phenomenon where people can watch any number of human characters die in horrible ways and not feel anything, but if a movie even threatens an animal with harm, let alone death, it bothers people a lot.

    2. It's weird, isn't it? Yet my daughter and I are kind of like that too. We see people dying in awful ways and say "It's just a movie," but God forbid if a dog dies onscreen. Go figure. :-)

  4. Ah, Heathers. I think I might be alone in this opinion, but I'd love to have seen Heathers go further--something more like Suicide Club. Still, how can you not love a movie that includes the line "I love my dead gay son"?

    1. I love that line. I had to really resist the urge to not put a ton of quotes from this movie in my post.

      It sounds like you might have preferred the original ending to the movie, if they had ever filmed it.