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Groovers and Mobsters Present: The Dark Comedy

Horace Walpole had an enduring observation about the world, calling it “a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Who says it can’t be both at once? Certainly not the writers, directors, producers and stars of films that fall into the grimace-with-laughter dark comedy genre. From the emotionally violent to the downright macabre, dark comedies buff a funny and acidic sheen on the devastating realities of everyday life. Read on to discover how “Heathers” accomplishes this, and visit the Movie Mobsters site for a complete list of must-see dark comedies.

“Heathers” (1988)

“Your society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.” ~~J.D.

Back in the 1980s, there was a clown car-esque release of movies about teens — their dweeby friends, their terminally unhip parents, their Saturday detentions, their proms and (most important) their neverending quest for carnal treasure. Then came Michael Lehmann’s vicious “Heathers” in 1988, which hammered a croquet mallet on the clichés and the squishy afterschool love-ins that came before. The film leveled an unblinking eye at the quick-n-dirty politics of high school as well as the obliviousness of the adults in charge and, in the process, became the standard not just for dark comedies but for all future teen comedies, too.

The teens in “Heathers” have adapted to the unspoken Darwinian laws of high school. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) rules her clique of yes women – fearful Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), bubbleheaded Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Veronica (Winona Ryder), a precocious student of human nature – with such ferocity that the likes of Pol Pot would bow before her. No one dares to question her authority until shake-up-the-establishment loner J.D. (Christian Slater) pops onto the radar. Not one to become any dictator’s collateral damage, he draws Veronica in his plot to murder Westerburg High’s aristocracy and make their deaths look like scandalous suicides. Soon Veronica’s “teen-angst bullshit” begins to amass a formidable body count.

Commonly labeled as a “teen movie” (and it is a stellar one), “Heathers” is, above all else, a spot-on dark comedy that spins stereotypes into macabre yet revealing jokes. Dark comedies, be they sneaky and subtle or bloody, are meant to shine unwelcome light on the twisted inner workings of human nature and society. They are meant to be fearless. In “Heathers,” scriptwriter Daniel Waters mercilessly skewers the fluffy clichés to get at the mean, cold truths about high school. Societal satires don’t come gutsier or smarter than this. Waters presents all the usual suspects – the fat girl, the lone wolf, the jock – in their natural habitat with a kind of ruthlessness not seen before in movies about teen-agers. Every offhand observation, particularly Veronica’s “She’s my best friend. God, I hate her,” is blisteringly and hilariously accurate. But these aren’t the belly laughs dumb comedy serves up; no, these laughs lump in your throat because it’s all truth and no artificial sweetener. That’s the kind of truth you need a Slushie to wash down.


11 Responses

  1. Such lovely writing as always Meredith. Heathers is a classy little flick. I’ve always enjoyed watching Christian Slater, I think he’s a bit of an underrated actor actually. Same goes for Winona…she might have had a better career had she decided not to steal stuff. Interesting these two Heathers actors have both had troubled off-screen lives…certainly gives some authenticity to the film. Have you seen Pump Up The Volume – another good Slater/off-beat/teen flick.

  2. “I love my dead gay son.”

  3. I LOVE reading your writing, M.
    Heathers is a bit of a classic I need to revisit. I actually have a friend who bought me a copy and said watch this!!!
    I wonder why the screenwriter of this film has yet to kind of recapture the success of this film because I remember how sharp it was???
    PS. Shouldn’t Heather have done Heathers? haha

  4. It’s always weird seeing 5-6 straight-to-dvd films starring Slater at Blockbuster.

  5. I just wanted to bond with you over our love of Tom Perrotta’s ‘Little Children’ over on moviesandsong365. You, ma’am, have excellent taste!

  6. A little too hostile for my taste but I guess thats high school for a lot of people, hotility and negativity. Throw some teenage ansgt into the mix and I guess Heathers could be a macabre reflection of the inner frustrations of the teen age, The Breakfast Club meets Bonnie and Clyde.
    It’s not difficult to see where the likes of Mean Girls got its’ inspiration but I can’t help but feel doubtful as to whether this suggests a helpful remedy to a common social conundrum or perpetuates a negative view of the awkward place between fear and acceptance that occupies the majority of teen flicks. Maybe it’s neither but I can’t say that it made me laugh, but then maybe it wasn’t supposed to, so in that sense I guess it succeeded. Apparent contrariness for it’s own sake is difficult to justify in my book, despite the best of intentions, it’s just not my cup o’ tea.

    • @ Dan — Normally I don’t love Christian Slater but in “Heathers” his whole James Dean/Jack Nicholson act works for me.

      @ Kaiderman — Maybe this was Daniel Waters’ “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He’s tried to hit the mark again, but stuff like “Sex and Death 101” he can’t do it. He must have written “Heathers” when the shame of high school was still fresh.

      @ Blake — “Little Children” is in my Top 10 books! I think we’re having a shared moment right now. But if you ever find yourself in the Bible Belt region, do let me know!

      @ Ronan — You not laughing might be a good thing. I tend to laugh at all kinds of sick things that shouldn’t be funny, and probably that means I need to go back to therapy.

  7. Without question I appreciate this film the more times I see it, not unlike American Beauty or American Psycho for me, or even Wellcome To The Dollhouse. I love movies that are so original and so out there that they reinvent themselves over time because they aren’t truly defined by time. Heathers is a movie that I’m proud to share a name with, and I’ll take the dark sense of humor that goes along with that. 😉

    Inspired write up M. Carter and thanks for joining us again.

    • You realize, don’t you, that I’m going to have withdrawals when I don’t participate in the next one?!?

  8. Wow Mer picked Heathers…didn’t see that coming:P

    I second Heather (to clairfy I mean Movie Mobster’s Heather) and agree that this is inspired writing.

    As always you do more with less…even though I still don’t “get” this movie. But I bet me being a guy has something to do with it:) Also, I went to an inner city school so we didn’t have cliques and stereotypes, we had gangs and violence…ah, memories:P

    • I went to a Southern high school, so we had rednecks vs. gangsters. The whole place was so tense, you could cut it with a switchblade.

      You have no idea how hard it was for me to narrow it down to “Heathers.” I also considered “Swimming with Sharks” and, of course, various Coen films.

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