No. 19: “Heathers” (1989)

“It’s one thing to want someone out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer.” ~~Veronica Sawyer

“Hell is a teenage girl.” It’s inconceivable that Diablo Cody, when she penned that line for “Jennifer’s Body,” didn’t have visions of Daniel Waters’ caustic high school satire “Heathers” dancing in her head. With “Heathers,” Waters did nothing if not create teen black comedies as we know them, spawning scads of wannabes and copycats. None have reached such dizzying and brutally comic heights. Pause and ponder, though — is that such a shock? With its inventive one-liners, shrewd observations of high school and its million pecking orders and outstanding characters, “Heathers” didn’t set the standard; it became the standard.

Exactly how “Heathers” did that lies in smart, calculated execution of a very familiar and universal setting: high school. Ohio’s Westerburg High School is a medieval torture chamber for students not popular enough to register on Heather Chandler’s (a snarling-good Kim Walker) radar. And considering that the ubercool Chandler is essentially Idi Amin in off-white tights, that’s everyone except timid Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), ditzy Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and brainy Veronica (Winona Ryder), the mute devotees who populate her social circle. Though all live in fear of Heather’s wrath (“I’m worshiped at Westerburg and I’m only a junior,” she observes astutely), only Veronica musters the courage to rebel — indirectly by dating precocious loner J.D. (Christian Slater) and more openly by challenging Heather at a college party (the iconic “lick it up” clip). Fed up with Heather’s reign, Veronica goes along with J.D.’s “fake” plan to murder her best friend/worst enemy (“same difference,” she notes) using a cup of liquid drainer. But something goes wrong, and Heather’s off to the afterlife, presumably to take over, leaving Veronica in need of a cover story. J.D. obliges so quickly and readily we wonder how long he’s been plotting this, then dreams up more deadly schemes. Waters pulls no punches with J.D., who comes off not as a harmless misfit but as a perceptive, smooth-talking sociopath with murder on the brain. He can coerce Veronica to do his bidding because he’s that cunning.

That take-no-prisoners attitude extends to every aspect of “Heathers,” really. Whether he’s an ex-nerd with a vendetta or simply an imaginative writer with a flair for satire, Waters is vicious in his treatment of Westerburg’s elite, particularly Heather Chandler, and Heather Duke (Doherty’s enthusiasm is perversely infectious), who treats her leader’s death as a stepping stone to her own coronation. Waters writes both Heathers as ruthless bitches, but with hints of depth. There’s a throwaway scene early on where Chandler stares down her reflection in the mirror; somehow, she looks worn down by the duties attached to her position. When she dies, Duke steps in without pause. Can we blame her? She’s running on years of insults and sublimated rage. Her ascension is a reminder that the tease of power turns the meekest of souls bad — an ’80s retool of, like, that whole “absolute power” warning.

Waters tosses some hate grenades, too, at Westerburg’s administrators, all as clueless as the ruling Heathers are evil. The principal (John Ingle) couldn’t care less about the students’ grief; his only concern is figuring out appropriate grief timetables. The P.C. guidance counselor (Pauline Fleming) goes the opposite route: She stages pointless, hand-holding love-ins in the cafeteria while never once offering real solace. Everyone’s so self-absorbed that no one notices how phony the suicides are, or pays attention to the students in real pain, like overweight loner Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn). Only Veronica, played with quippy horror by Ryder, and J.D. (this was back when Christian Slater really wanted to be James Dean), see through the B.S. Waters skewers the administrators to show the truth: They’re not in charge, and they’re too dumb to notice.

Though he’s since fallen from grace (the hideous “Sex and Death 101”), “Heathers” proved that for one moment, Waters understood the nature of high school better than anyone. J.D. calls Westerburg “a school that self-destructed not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.” That’s wicked-deep. Anybody feel like a Slushie?

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