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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?

15 Responses

  1. Gotta be one of my favorite 80’s flicks and teen movies ever.

    There is nothing greater or more funny to me than a good dark comedy. This movie is like comfort food for me.

    Strangely I was compelled to take a facebook quiz today about the popularity of my name or some such nonsense. Apparently Heathers was the tenth most popular name the year I was porn, and like I said, I guess it makes even more sense.

    Great review M. Carter. You kick ass. I just want to watch this now.

    • Ha! I said porn. I meant born, but porn is funnier!

    • You were in porn the year of birth? Damn, you ARE advanced. Cool before your time, I’d say!

      “Heathers” is one of those movies I saw once and immediately developed undying love for, then sort of forgot about it till years later. Now that I’m an “adult,” Countless viewings later and I still stand in awe of how amazingly smart and unapologetically brutal it is. As far as I’m concerned, it is the best teen comedy every, and it deserves to be called one of the best dark comedies ever made, too.

  2. Wow, excellent review! I love this movie because it holds nothing back as a satire and is so twisted and hilarious at the same time. I really love Ryder in it (especially with her character’s cool fashion sense!) and god you’re right, Slater so wishes he was James Dean. He’s not quite there but he does a pretty good job anyway.

    I’ve shown this to various friends and no one ever seems to like it that much, so it’s nice to hear you enjoy it as much as I do!

    • You are not alone — I can’t tell you how many times people have returned my copy of “Heathers” and given me dirty looks. They were expecting “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” I suppose.

      Did you hear back in August that FOX TV was planning a remake of “Heathers”? I posted about it here: https://mcarteratthemovies.wordpress.com/2009/08/31/whats-your-damage-fox-tv/. Just thinking about somebody trying for a competent redo of this classic makes me want to toss my cookies.

      But I won’t because that is SO 1987.

  3. Heather: in what year were you porn?
    Heathers: i do like you a little, but you have Christian Slater in you, which immediately costs you marks.
    (and yes, I am talking to a movie)

    • Normally I’d agree with you on Christian Slater (hate that guy), but any movie that gets away with lines like “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” is one I can’t pass up no matter who’s in it.

  4. There was a time in the late 80’s early 90’s when it looked like Winona Ryder and Christian Slater could be amongst the biggest stars in the Hollywood. Although they have both had their moments of brilliance neither has lived up to the potential of this movie.

    • The same could be said of Daniel Waters — after “Heathers,” it was like he had nothing left in him. “Sex and Death 101” was his very feeble attempt to recapture that glory, but it backfired on him.

  5. […] better by setting “Brick” in a SoCal high school that exists as its own society (like “Heathers” sans smartened-up Valley Girl affectations). There are caste systems to be maintained, mores to be […]

  6. this is the best!

  7. Nice Website. You should think more about RSS Feeds as a traffic source. They bring me a nice bit of traffic.

  8. […] “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t […]

  9. […] teen satires go, “Saved!” is not exactly “Heathers” or ”Clueless,” but it doesn’t retract its fangs. Dannelly and Urban […]

  10. […] Kemper); Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), harried mom of three sons; and Helen, the 2011 version of Heather Chandler. From the start, the broke maid of honor’s plans go spectacularly wrong, starting with a […]

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