Cult Column: Heathers (1988)

Heathers’perfect balance between dark comedy and American high school movie earns the film its status of cult classic, with language and themes that its modern counterparts, such as Mean Girls (2004), could never get away with. It presents ‘tough’ themes with a satirical twist and complete pessimism; even the protagonist, Veronica Sawyer, isn’t a squeaky-clean school girl.

The film begins in a surreal setting, with a sinisterly saccharine cover of “Que Sera Sera” – Doris Day refused to permit an R-rated film use of her original – playing as the three Heathers hit croquet balls at Veronica’s head. Veronica (Winona Ryder) has risen to social stardom by the school’s untouchable group of queen bees, three girls all called Heather. The leader of the group, Heather Chandler, who makes Regina George seem like the girl next door, marks her authority with the iconic red scrunchy, which the girls tear from each other in a bid for power.

When Veronica meets a mysterious Romantic hero in the school cafeteria, J.D. (Christian Slater), he encourages her to escape the Heathers, starting by feeding Heather Chandler drain cleaner. The protagonist quickly moves on from the shock of murdering her best friend and uses her forging skills to write a fake suicide note to cover up the murder. J.D. then tricks Veronica into shooting a pair of jocks, whose history of sexual assault removes any sadness about their deaths. These suicides are then used by the school for publicity, with the teachers and students claiming to have been best friends with the deceased on the news, while the song ‘Teen Suicide (don’t do it)’ shoots to number one in the charts.

This satirical approach to teen suicide would probably not be so easily allowed in cinema today, but it remains a relevant criticism of society’s habit of romanticising suicide and failing to respond to it. When the school outcast attempts her own suicide, the school further isolates her. It is this toxic environment that leads J.D. to the conclusion that he needs to destroy the school.

In his original script, screenwriter Daniel Waters had the film end with the success of J.D.’s plot, but this was rejected and replaced with a dramatic fight between Veronica and J.D. in the school boiler room, culminating with him leaving, wearing the explosives himself. Despite the film’s surrealism, this nihilism makes Heathers feel real, because, ultimately, it isn’t afraid to show that people can’t always be ‘fixed’.

 

Image: Karon Liu via Wikimedia Commons. 

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