From the very first nostalgically sweet notes of Que Sera, Sera, Heathers cordially invites the viewer into a world of color coded accessorizing and croquet. A world where one mean teen girl rules the school with her fashionable clique in obedient tow, what has become mundanely predictable trope of teen movies. Thankfully, it doesn’t stay mundane for very long. Enter the new guy at school, the mysterious loner who coaxes the only wild card in this ruling class of Swatch watches and sweaters from The Limited into a life of secret crime- a string of murders staged to look like high school suicides.
Like most films in the genre, Heathers focuses on the struggle of self esteem and fitting in during those difficult teen years. What sets this movie apart from so many others is that it tackles a laundry list of social issues even beyond popularity and does so while gleefully adding to it’s body count. Topics touched on range from suicidal, bulimic and depressed rich girls to (not really) homosexual football players to apathetic and obtuse adults to the patronizing of bunny rabbits. Add to this a great set of performances by young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater (whose image I freely admit to tearing out of Tiger Beat magazine to hang in my locker) and a terrifically quotable script (“Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up.”), and you can almost overlook the fumbling direction of Michael Lehmann. Lehmann seems to have peaked early with this film and much of that success is due to the clever dialogue, cast and engaging subject matter, not his particular skill in finding a cohesive voice. The struggles evident in its lack of tonal clarity and commitment only become more evident in his later films. (See: Hudson Hawk and Airheads– or better yet, don’t see them and just take my word for it.)
I was only twelve years old when Heathers was released, so the social commentary was lost on my initial viewings. I will say this though, the film is apparently enjoyable simply for it’s dark comedy as I remember joyously traveling to Tower Records and purchasing the VHS copy that I still own when it was hot off the press. Veronica’s (Ryder) joining of JD’s (Slater) murder spree seemed nothing but reluctant at the time, though as an adult it is clear that she was using feigned ignorance as a mask to allow herself to participate without conscience. After all, a calm “That’s it. We’re breaking up.” is not the normal response to a murderous boyfriend. She easily transitions her forgery skills from embarrassing love confessions to suicide notes with very little fuss, seemingly happy to finally have someone who appreciates her for who she is beyond rich and popular. We aren’t given a heroine who is a victim struggling to prevail against evil, but a fairly aware participant who is clearly more in control than she wants others to think. Veronica even goes so far as to don a monocle when writing of the murders in her diary, prompting the question of which is her true face – something the viewer is left guessing about for most of the movie. In what proves to be a twist that is so “very”, in the end it is JD who shows his hidden self and proves to be the only truly suicidal teen at Westerburg High while Veronica embraces her true self and turns her back on popularity.
While Heathers is dark in subject and murder might not be for everyone, the levels of sarcasm and subversive wit keep it from delving into the morose and more than make up for any directorial failings. It manages to impart some solid lessons about self empowerment and dealing with the high school hierarchy amidst cow tipping and corn nuts.
Well guys, great pate, but I’ve gotta motor if I want to get ready for work.