22nd Aug2018

‘Heathers’ Review (30th Anniversary)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Peter Dawson | Written by Daniel Waters | Directed by Michael Lehmann

HEATHERS_2D_BD

It barely registered at the box office in 1988. Yet here I am, 30 years later, in a cinema packed with millennials, watching a 4K restoration in advance of Heather’s re-release on luxury Arrow Blu-ray next month. What a time to be alive.

Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is the leader of the “Heathers”, a clique of mean girls running their Ohio high school. There are two other Heathers in the group, and then there’s the runt of the litter: Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder). Veronica is a bitch, but her engagement with the girls’ cycle of bullying and mockery is reluctant. Smooth, smarmy Jason Dean (Christian Slater) spots this self-doubt and lures Veronica into his carefree, rebellious world. Veronica and Jason spark up an immediately passionate yet toxic romance. Veronica has often thought about killing Miss Chandler, not to mention other bullies at the school, but now she’s met someone who’s really willing to do it.

From the opening scene, where we meet Veronica (who’s also narrator) buried in the ground up to her neck, we are aware that what we see might not be truly true. Indeed, there’s a distinct possibility that Jason doesn’t even exist. He could be the figment of Veronica’s imagination that actuates her darkest thoughts: the ego to her id. This is ten years before the likes of Fight Club and The Sixth Sense turned existential twists into key narrative currency. Heathers, by comparison, is virtually spoiler-proof. You can tell someone the finer plot details – the identity of the victims, everything – and it won’t really explain what it’s about, or the feeling of watching it.

Sometimes it takes decades for a film to achieve its classic status because it’s taken that long to notice its legacy on screen. There are the obvious successors like Mean Girls, but influences can also be seen in the high society sniping of Whit Stillman; the dry irony of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Alexander Payne’s Election; the offbeat sensibility of Donnie Darko; all the way up to Desperate Housewives, with its incongruent jaunty music and ostensibly utopian suburban backdrop. At a stretch, in the scenes between Veronica and her parents there’s a touch of David Lynch in the rictus grins and awkward close-ups. But there’s still nothing quite like Heathers.

Westerburg High is shot through an almost smoky, dreamlike haze. Forever late afternoon, it seems. The script is by Daniel Waters, who would go on to write the likes of Batman Returns and Demolition Man – good work, but this remains his best. The writing is absolutely stinging in its satirical view of Ronald Reagan’s deeply contradictory America, and of 1980s high school culture itself. “Watcha doing tonight?” someone asks Veronica at the funeral of her former friend. “I dunno. Mourning. Maybe watching TV.” And while the focus is firmly on the young people, occasionally the adults strike into that hermetically-sealed world with barbed arrow of truth: “When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings.”

Mostly, the parents and teachers are jaded and cynical. The meetings between staff after each of the apparent “suicides” are hilariously hopeless. The one teacher who remains optimistic is a hyper-liberal fantasist who arranges a cringeworthy love-in in the school cafeteria. It results in a spectacle of karaoke grief, with kids playing up for the cameras – something horribly prescient of the viral, hashtag culture of today. The kids themselves, it seems, are being conditioned for a cynical world. When one student genuinely attempts suicide, the assumption of her peers is that she was merely plagiarising.

Veronica treats friendship as a career, and the reward is popularity. She is being trained for the ‘80s rat race; for life as a competition. If not narcissistic, Veronica is certainly solipsistic. Often uncaring and frequently fickle, she only occasionally gazes out of her gilded cage and feels compassion. Other films – lesser films – would start with nice girl Veronica being drawn into the bad crowd, and then learning her lesson before returning to her sweet, true nature. But Heathers starts near the end of that journey. With the decade dwindling, there’s the dawning realisation that the promise of unbounded capitalism was a lie. It doesn’t make people happier after all. A society built on greed and superficiality, the film says, will veer toward extreme actions to shock the humanity out of people.

The US adores the tragedy of youth. Jason Dean is almost James Dean, after all. He literally is a rebel without a cause. Jason is the son of a ghastly construction company owner, and is constantly moving schools. The father is the epitome of ‘80s industrial ruthlessness, taking glee in corporate competition and literal demolition, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

But while the contemporary political parallels are clear, the universal aspect is the metaphor for youth. Jason is almost Joker-like in his pursuit of social anarchy. He sees school as society in microcosm – not an unusual observation, although that microcosm is shrunken further for him because he’s never settled. The episodic nature of his experience makes anarchy the natural impulse. Because what else is there beyond what exists right now? He can access no wisdom as to the grand sweep of life, certainly not from his self-absorbed dad. He lacks the context to know that high school is just a tiny chapter. It’s like he’s reliving the end of the world with every passing semester. There’s a reason the film is bookended with a question: What would you do with your last day on Earth?

In the end, for all its dark themes, its ironic humour, its unreliable narration and its skewed perspectives, Heathers is a net positive film. It’s a cautionary tale about indulging the drama of high school to an existential degree. The terrible sense that this is all the world will ever offer: this suffocating, hermetically-sealed world of cruelty and jealousy. Perhaps in a world where school shootings have become depressingly regular, it might seem to be making light of serious subject matter. But if you feel the need for a counterpoint to the sombreness and sobriety of 13 Reasons Why, look no further.

Heathers is out now in cinemas on limited release and on Arrow Blu-ray from 10th September 2018.

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