Heathers: Teen Angst Bullshit With a Body Count

One of my favorite decades for film is the 1980s and one big reason for that is the abundance of teen movies, a genre that I unashamedly and unapologetically love and enjoy: in my own teen years, I dug into the reserve of these highly entertaining movies and genuinely adored them all, from the John Hughes classics like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink, to films like WarGames, Footloose and Real Genius, and even lesser known stuff and cult classics like Repo Man, Better Off Dead and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. These movies were not only a fun and enchanting insight into the American life and what it meant to be a teenager in the States, but also a portal into an era I never experienced and only romanticized about. These films were as positive and optimistic as they were fun and addictive, and at the end, writers like the legendary John Hughes always found a way for the geek and the popular girl to fall in love, for the outcast to find acceptance and friendship, and for the bully and the evil school principal to receive proper, comedic punishment. Heathers was to be THE teen movie to end all teen movies, a film that contains all the elements that made the 80s era so iconic for this genre but Heathers twists and warps them in a very morbid and perverse manner resulting in one of the most fun, darkly hilarious and unique films of the 1980s.

Heathers’ story is about a high school clique of four girls, three of them named Heather, all mean in varying degrees, and a nicer, more compassionate girl by the name of Veronica Sawyer (played by Winona Ryder, who was only 16 at the time!). Their lives are disturbed when the criminally psychotic but charming loner Jason Dean (played by Christian Slater) enters the play, starts dating Veronica, and together, they plot the murder of one popular bully after another, staging it to look like a suicide, and starting with the tyrannical Heather Chandler. As they knock off one victim after another, their relationship starts to deteriorate as Veronica starts to realize just how psychotic and homicidal J. D. really is, resulting in an epic encounter where the redemptive, redeeming Veronica, suddenly made the true hero of the film, saves her school from her boyfriend’s last attempt at mass destruction.

Heathers’ comedy relies mostly on parody and shifting the audiences’ expectations as to what will happen next. When J. D. is subjected to an attempt at bullying, he literally pulls out a gun and shoots the two students. This pattern is replicated throughout the film, embodying one of J. D.’s most iconic lines, “the extreme always seems to make an impression.” It seems that the events of the story unfold according to what writer Daniel Waters thought was the most extreme and radical option available, and it works beautifully. This often surrealistic and absurd chain of actions give the film a very dream-like nature, with a tendency to jump into nightmarish sequences, but never stooping to depressing morbidity, even at its darkest, Heathers is always a pack of laughs. What amplifies this effect is the way the film is shot: a high contrast palette with bright, gleaming colors, with a certain Technicolor feel to it all. A film about a couple whose relationship is based on an inclination towards crime, something like the iconic Bonnie and Clyde, is usually shot in a fairly grim manner, but with Heathers, as dark and macabre as its story is, its visuals and aesthetics are the exact opposite; everything from the way it is filmed to the way its characters dress, in cheerful, over-the-top colors. Lord knows how much darker it would have been otherwise.

I attempt to maintain a somewhat professional manner in my film writings even on this blog, but it is proving to be a little challenging to speak that way about a film with lines like “fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “I love my dead, gay son!” and this very same genius dialogue is another great reason for the comedic effect of Heathers. This is a movie that deals with pretty serious issues: suicide, murder and abandonment, what is even more dire is the fact that all of these problems are discussed from a teenager’s point of view, an attempt that would have radically failed and resulted in a completely different film were it not for the genius script of Heathers. While towards the end, its pacing is rather sluggish and even a little repetitive, its dialogue prevents it from ever becoming boring and makes it one of the most quotable films in history. Great lines like “did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”, “my teen-angst bullshit has a body count”, “I don’t patronize bunny rabbits” and the iconic “greetings and salutations” are as shocking as they are hilarious, and one of the biggest reasons this film still holds its legendary status more than thirty years after its initial release.

Will someone tell me why I love this film so much...because I’m an idiot? Yeah, that’s it. Heathers set out to be the teen movie to end all teen movies, and bring closure to an era of great titles that was quickly getting stale and monotonous, but what it did instead is spawn another generation of teen movies that were not afraid to experiment with darker, more mature subject matter, and without it we wouldn’t have great films like Dazed and Confused, Slacker and Ghost World, but its always a pleasure to return to roots and revisit the film that dared be different.


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