Monday, April 30, 2012

Heathers Review - Oh, the humanity!

Football season is over. Kurt and Ram had nothing to offer the school but date rapes and AIDS jokes.
Before my 3-year anniversary, I challenged myself to write 3 reviews per week for 3 weeks in April. It was a lot of work, but it was very fun. I really enjoyed reviewing my choices, and was happy with the results. Of course, I felt I should add one more, for good luck - and review it differently than my other April entries. I never fail, mf.

That was a great decision, since it brought me back full-circle to my first ever review here: Three O'Clock High. TOH is one of the great unknown 80's comedies, a real treasure & personal favorite, always reminding me of Heathers, in many ways. And so everything old is new again.

This clip tells you everything you need to know about Heathers.

Veronica is well-off, and smart enough to do anything. But she has typical teenage problems - she has to make sacrifices for her position in the social hierarchy, like using her brain to help the prettiest girls in school treat everyone like crap. Worse, no one really understands or appreciates her. Then the new kid comes to town.

Christian Slater's JD is like a bleak, modern take on James Dean (initials are no coincidence). He soon establishes himself as a loner/free-thinker who won't respect the clique system. And when he defends a "loser"and two bullies set their sights on him, JD stands up in the cafeteria, pulls out a gun loaded with blanks, and fires twice. It not only sets up his personality, it makes him irresistible to Veronica.

Now our lead, the smartest flunky you ever saw, has someone with whom to share her true feelings and thoughts. Although Veronica isn't slutty, a surprise meeting with JD leads immediately to sex. How will this new-found, perfect romance change life, cliques, and the school itself? Pretty badly, since JD is a depressed sociopath.

For people who were at least 11 in 1989, Heathers was one of the most popular films ever. It was, basically, as popular as Clerks, and (on a smaller scale) Pulp Fiction. Everybody knew the movie and could quote lines from it at the drop of a dime. Why was it so popular?

First, Heathers nailed the nastiest elements of high school: Winona Ryder's sweet lead (Veronica) is a genius, but she's popular because she helps the beautiful people (three Heathers) mock others. The top athletes not only bully nerds, they pressure dates into sex. The popular girls spend their time enjoying life and hurting the less fortunate. What a bunch of bastards!

One of the best curses I've ever heard.

Second, Heathers is the very epitome of the dark comedy.  The dialogue is incredibly sharp, and it gives room for lots of clever jokes and banter; but you'd never think a movie that's this funny can also be incredibly cynical, bleak, or macabre. I've never laughed so much at fake funerals; not ever. Hell, as more teens die, a failed suicide is mocked because now all the popular kids are doing it!

And last, Heathers gave us a cast of solid, credible actors (Ryder, Slater, Shannen Doherty as Heather #3...) who work well with their lines and choices. These people pull you into the movie and make its story all the more compelling.
Dear Diary: My teen angst bullshit has a body count.
Three O'Clock High has these elements, but is much more of a traditional comedy. Heathers, however, opens by showing the happy, privileged life that Veronica shares with the three Heathers of Westerburg High. It starts in a dreamy, candyland-type world, the sort that (like youth) doesn't prepare you for the nastiness ahead. But it perfectly sets up the audience for all the absurd humor at play.

Specific connections to TOH also include the great portrayal of a pep-rally, neatly deflating parents and teens alike as short-sighted fools, and the ability to make sweet comedy out of the bleakest moments. If you never thought grim could be funny, you know what to rent now...

This is also the sort of movie where the beginning doesn't make you ready for which way the story is going to go - and I love that. Surprise is key to great story-telling.

We don't get to explore the new twist of lovers who must deal with their complicated and cruel classmates. No, Veronica goes to patch up an argument with Heather #1, idly wishing the mean snob would just croak. And then JD slips drain cleaner into the teen queen's coffee mug.

Veronica gets little pleasure from this wish-fulfillment. She has the shame and fear of having taken a life, even if she didn't know what her new boyfriend did. Quickly, she writes a fake suicide note for the girl, hoping everyone will believe that a vapid jerk would be full of deep, morose thoughts.

This music totally makes me think of Danny Elfman.

It works so well that the school forgets Heather's awfulness, and everyone not only buys her life as a misunderstood tragedy, they all promote it. By accidentally killing her, Veronica has made a saint out of her dead frenemy. While this might be bad enough, the "suicides" don't stop there.

Young love is a b----.

Only video clips can convey the incisive humor here. Parents, teens, school employees - all are mocked and derided as we see their earnest and phony and self-righteous reactions to problems they don't even try to understand. Incredibly, Heathers mines this death and cruelty for truly-hysterical jokes while giving us a character who is, at heart, one of those Columbine-type losers who just wants to lash out at the world.

By the time Heathers ends, you'll have seen a string of murders, three funny funerals, and one moment where the lead burns herself with a car lighter out of guilt & shame. If you want to get the style of this piece, you have to be able to appreciate that Veronica's boyfriend then uses her painful burn to light his own cigarette. Wow.

I love a "did not!"/"did too!" scene. & Lionel Ritchie's "Hello," organ-style.

The reason Heathers was so popular was that it was very good and very different, and the ending is perfect. Only movies like Beetlejuice match its tone (as a kid, I thought this was a Burton pic). Black comedies can be very hard to describe or sell, but this tightly-plotted, well-paced, beautifully-directed, smartly-written little masterpiece sells itself. Just watch the clips I've embedded.

All I can do is thank the director, Michael Lehmann, for his contribution to film. I seldom feel this way about movies, and I'm sure it's not just 80's nostalgia getting the better of me, but I just want to thank everyone who made this film.

I'm glad you all stuck with me through this whole anniversary celebration. I tried to make it fun and rewarding for everyone. I'm glad I set new monthly records for posts and reviews. I have plenty of fun entries for May, which will be different in style and content than these past 30 days. Stay tuned, and enjoy, please.


  1. I love Heathers. I think it is incredibly smart and funny and very unique. Also Winona forever :D

    1. I'm with you all the way there! Check out Three O'Clock High, too!


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