‘Dear Diary, I want to kill – and you have to believe, it’s for more than just selfish reasons, more than just a spoke in my menstrual cycle.’
For a generation, the first taste of the Heathers came from a Disney cartoon series. Recess, which ran from 1997-2001, featured a clique known as The Ashleys that dominated the playground. In years to come their character type, the image and status obsessed popular girls who bully all ‘below’ them yet somehow retain their throne through a combination of beauty and charisma of sorts, would become a more famillar feature in our popular culture consumption. Some of us may have even met a few in reality… Now, watching Heathers ahead of it’s 30th anniversary, it’s like watching the grown up version of Recess – except this satire allows the ‘goddamn geek’ or ‘rebel’ to get revenge in the darkest way possible. It’s the teen movie that launched a thousand (or, at the very least, lots…) of teen movies. It’s unquestionably an 80s classic and a total must-see.
Veronica (Winona Ryder) is part of the Heathers, the most popular group at her high school. Well, she sort of is. Having abandoned Betty, her sweet childhood friend, in favour of infamy, she’s not particularly comfortable with all of their antics. New arrival Jason Dean (Christian Slater) can see that, even from the other side of the canteen. They soon start dating, united in their distain of many of their peers. During a confrontation with lead Heather (Kim Walker) Heather ends up dying after being poisoned – they make it appear a suicide. But when more students at their school start dying, Veronica realises that J.D. may not be all that sane…
For some people, high school/secondary school may result in the best days of their life. For others it may result in some of their worst. Either state may be interchangeable, with one at the expense of the other. With this black as kohl satirical comedy, director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters, give a voice to the disenfranchised teen. The, self-appointed, black sheep of the 80s golden age of teen cinema is unashamedly dark, cynical and wondrously subversive.
The film opens and closes with less familiar versions of Que Sera Sera (Doris Day refused to let her version be used because she didn’t want it associated with profanity). Exquisitely chosen, the song is all about yearning yet acknowledging that whatever happens, will happen. The future cannot be seen and cannot be predicted or anticipated. That’s more than true for Veronica. A few years later Nirvana would encapsulate that feeling into a new anthem. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a song about teenage ‘freedom’ (the extent of it and inaccessibility of it), revolution and non-conformity from the first generation who realised their quality of life would not exceed that of their parents. In fact it might not even equal it.
The actions of J.D, and Veronica by sort-off default, epitomise that. The use of the surname Dean feels like a probable allusion to James Dean, the great 1950s Rebel Without A Cause. J.D’s actions in Heathers are ironically interlinked with the concept of ‘cause’ and causality. They are reactions, to the people around him whom he despises and to his psychopathic tendencies. The sarcasm and smirk will only get him so far. Slater is impeccable in the role, no-one else could have played him (Brad Pitt was in the running but was deemed ‘too nice’ for the role). The way he communicates with his dad reinforces the sense of generations divided; they’ve intentionally swapped roles when they communicate – J.D. is ‘dad’ whilst his father is ‘tiger’. Roles may be swapped but a set script must be followed, allowing for neither generation to understand the other. Slater became a poster boy playing a role that exposed the underlying darkness of his ‘cool guy’ predecessors, which aids an extra layer of irony to a production that is already teaming with it.
The same can be said of Ryder as Veronica. To an audacious extent she epitomises the consequences of social climbing combined with the impact of being viewed as the generation of troubled youths. Over 15 years later we’d see Tina Fey replicating a similar narrative with Mean Girls, the outcast who reinvents herself to join the most popular social group. And whilst Cady’s journey is nowhere near as savage – after all, for Veronica, life at high school is literally murder. She begins the film as a quasi bystander/collaborator of social torture with the Heathers, she unwittingly becomes a vigilante of a type of social justice alongside J.D., before doing all she can to prevent further violence. Her journey is visceral and delightfully dark in an endlessly quotable examination of the dangers of youth along with being an important statement of teenage suicide.
The very fact that it’s 2018 and Carrie Hope Fletcher is leading a return of the musical here in London (at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for a limited 12 week run, starting from September 3rd) goes to show the film is still packed with relevance 30 years on; whether we want to admit that to ourselves or not…
Heathers is back in UK Cinemas August 10th. On digital and on demand from 20th August.