Director: Michael Lehmann
18 | 1h 43min | Comedy | 17 November 1989 (UK) (1988 US)
Playing various cinemas across London including The Prince Charles Cinema and Picturehouses
The darkly funny and subversive 1988 high-school comedy Heathers, now 30 years old and due a re-release, seems like one of the outliers in the high school movie genre given just how dark and provocative it gets, even by what feels like "today's standards". It feels like a full-throttle "fuck you" to all the John Hughes movies that arguably set the parameters of this kind of film just a few years earlier. Maybe a Heathers was kind of inevitable in that way, its common to see certain films kick against a trend a few years after said trend has bedded in. And so in Heathers, a story about a series of high school murders carried out in the name of rebellion against the school's suffocating clique-conformist culture, neither of the main leads here stay on the side of the angels. Despite a last-act turn against the descent into nihilistic mass-murder, Winona Ryder's jaded, upper-crust ex-clique rebel Veronica is still a co-conspirator to the deaths, acting in cahoots with he lover, the school's dark horse nihilist JD. The cast of supporting players who pivot around the main duo all at some point seem to the target of the film's mockery too. Whether it is new age proponents of touchy-feely teaching, bullying jocks, or leering anti-social geeks; the entire bland Ohio high school which serves as the film's setting is seemingly empty of anyone that we the viewers can latch on to, though this gives us plenty to chuckle and roll our eyes at. Director Michael Lehmann's and writer Daniel Waters' approach feels more John Waters than John Hughes in this regard. I can't deny I like films that go after everyone, without punching down.
One the film's most deliciously funny conceits is the fact that killing various members of the despicably privileged and brainless ruling cliques - which Veronica and JD proceed to set about doing in a variety of crude DIY methods ranging from poison to pistols- is ironically the only way these kids end up attaining a bizarre kind of grace by the time they are laid in the coffin; not exactly what their murderers intended. This school is so fucked up, even murder can't be done right: instead of waking people up in the way rich kid revolutionary JD raves about, each brutal death simply sends everyone in the school further into a spiral of schmaltzy memorialisation of the ruling clique pupils who everyone either secretly hated or feared when they were alive. JD draws his own nihilistic conclusions from this: might as well just blow everyone up in one go and create a "Woodstock for the 80s" via a few bricks of TNT.
If there is anyone worth rooting for, anyone the script seems to have a sliver of sympathy for, it seems to be only those at the very bottom of the pile, such as the socially isolated and overweight high-schooler "Martha Dumptruck" who is everyone's punching bag. As acidic as the film's screenplay is, and as flippant as it comes off about issues like teen suicide, rape and murder (with high school shootings now seemingly the norm in the US, elements of this film's plot does induce some queasiness), the presence of characters like Martha seems like the clearest evidence that the film isn't really on the side of Slater's "kill em all and let God sort 'em out" faux-rebel theatrics; which are made even more hypocritical by the fact he himself is the scion of huge wealth which he doesn't seem very interested in rejecting. It is instead more a satire-laced cry for a return to basic empathy; something which Reagan's 80s relegated to the bottom of the priority list. Still, I find myself wondering how much flak this film has taken in the post-Columbine shooting era, with JD's trench coat getup, 44 Magnum, and arsenal of cynical one-liners something of a high-school killer lookbook.