Actress Winona Ryder with Director Michael Lehmann
USA (102 mi) 1988 d: Michael Lehmann
Dear Diary: My teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.
—Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder)
Fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Theresa to you?
—#1 Heather Chandler (Kim Walker)
From the crazy, soulful notes of Sly & the Family Stone performing a rendition of the Doris Day song “Que Sera, Sera,” initially sung in the Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) before becoming a staple on her own TV show, this takes us back to the safe conservatism of the 50’s when a consumer-oriented society was a happy society, an era that promised a better life in the suburbs, a car in every garage, and a chance for your kid to go to college. There weren’t any red flags then about troubled teens in high school, as that was typically attributed to the juvenile delinquents dropping out of wood shop. But this film from the late 80’s is the blueprint for satiric troubled teen movies in the future, adding a mix of the HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) sardonic take on suicide as a source of humor to go along with Kubrick’s apocalyptic Cold War masterpiece DR. STRANGELOVE (1964), poking fun of a situation as dire as a single misguided nuclear warhead that can lead to the destruction of the world. Black comedy rarely works as well as it does here, featuring extremely witty, cutting edge dialogue written by Daniel Waters that goes for the jugular, actually inventing a cliquish high school slang vernacular that isn’t remotely real, but it’s wildly cruel and used to great effect, as the slang is used to maintain a clique’s superiority over others, to keep their foot on other’s throats til the very end of the movie when the studio insisted on a tagged-on ending. This film puts the exclamation point on the feel-good John Hughes high school movies from the 80’s and predates the shootings at Columbine, which occurred a decade later, or the follow up films ELEPHANT (2003), or MEAN GIRLS (2004), where both a realistic and satiric stab at life in high school predominated public thought wondering what went wrong with our kids today, especially the ones that seemingly had everything.
In the acid-tinged HEATHERS, the croquet kids are already well outside their parent’s reach, as they’ve invented a code expression of telling parents and adults what they want to hear, because they figure adults aren’t really listening anyway, so by telling them what they’re used to, by never varying the routine, they give the impression of stability and are free to do whatever they want. This is a learned language, something they don’t teach in school, and those that are good at it rule the school. The origin of the more commercially accessible MEAN GIRLS starts here, only this film is meaner, funnier, and has a much darker edge. At the top of the food chain are three high school Princesses each named Heather, aka #1 Chandler (Kim Walker), #2 Duke (Shannen Doherty) and #3 McNamara (Lisanne Falk), who have allowed a fourth girl named Veronica (Winona Ryder) to join their exclusive clique of the prettiest and most popular girls in school, put down artists who assert their dominance over the teeming throngs through cruelty and sarcasm, usually making someone else the butt of their jokes. These are girls that have nothing better to do than think up malicious plots to demean and ridicule those that are weaker than they are, thereby maintaining their image of superiority. Even Heather # 2 sometimes questions whether #1 is going too far, but #1 will always ruthlessly assert this is how she maintains her rule as #1. It’s as if you could go back in history and actually hear the Czar’s own children discussing the various ways to rule through terror. Ryder is especially good at expressing Veronica’s ambivalence, as on the one hand she likes the popularity, but is not comfortable accepting the trade-off of being liked at the expense of having to accept Heather’s sadistic cruelty, and writes in her diary how much she actually resents and hates Heather #1, thinking the world would be a better place without her. Well, be careful of what you wish for.
In walks a new kid from out of town, where “the only thing that’s changed in seven different schools is the locker combination,” the cryptic as ever Christian Slater (see him as another student rebel in PUMP UP THE VOLUME made a year later) as J.D, a black leather clad, motorcycle riding outsider with a perfect Jack Nicholson nasal accent from THE SHINING (1980), a cynical charmer who appeals to Veronica’s darker and perhaps baser impulses. Both loathe the high school mainstream, but J.D. is crazy enough to act upon it, taking advantage of Veronica’s animosity towards Heather #1, so he poisons her drink, implicating Veronica in the crime, using her talents to write the perfect suicide note, only to be shocked that Heather #1 is more popular dead than she ever was alive, as all the people that hated her are suddenly stumbling over one another to offer loving tributes. (See the outrageous Bobcat Goldthwait movie WORLD’S GREATEST DAD  for more) And it doesn’t stop there, as in another prank, J.D. pulls a gun on a couple of sneering jocks, shooting them with blanks, which he thinks is good for a laugh. (Remember, this was pre-Columbine when there were no alarms going off when a kid brings a gun to school.) When J.D. replaces the blanks with real bullets, Veronica is aghast with horror, thinking it was all supposed to be a joke, like one of the cruel pranks the Heathers play. Real life, it turns out, is so much worse. By the time Veronica comes to her senses and realizes just how sociopathic J.D. can be, it’s a heavy burden that falls on her shoulders. In no time, Heather #2 is worse than #1 ever was and Veronica’s world is spiralling out of control, where all she really wants is a return to normalcy, which draws the ire and sage advice of her mother: “When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings.” Elevating the art of teenage funeral scenes to the surreal, including one where the parishioners are all wearing 3D glasses, Veronica dreams she meets Heather #1 again, and she’s just as nasty dead as when alive, leaving Veronica little choice but to put an end to the viciousness. There are moments of this film that feel like being locked inside a Hieronymous Bosch painting with no escape. Perhaps that’s what being a teenager feels like.