Heathers (1989) Dir. Michael Lehmann
If anyone has ever asked you what your “damage” is, or perhaps called you a “swatch dog” or a “diet coke-head”, it’s likely they’ve watched Heathers more than once. Fans of the 1989 teenage black comedy tend to be of the passionate variety, weaving quotes from the film throughout their everyday life. And who can blame them? Years after first seeing it on a pay TV network, I found it incredibly difficult to track down a copy I could purchase and, for a while, seriously considered keeping a rental copy and telling the video store it had been stolen and destroyed in a bonfire organised by an underground Hillsong-style militia. The very idea would seem ludicrous if the film were not so controversial. You see, Heathers is a comedy about teen suicide –which, on the surface, seems akin to making a musical about date-rape or a light-hearted family adventure film about heroin addiction (well...Candy did have that fun scene on the gravity carousel...). Exploring such dark subject matter, particularly when aimed at a teenage audience, should be difficult to the point that success is an illogical outcome. But Daniel Waters’ script makes the twisted mix of tragedy and comedy look effortless and, in the safe hands of director Michael Lehmann, Heathers sits comfortably on the very right side of wrong.
At Westerberg High in Sherwood, Ohio, seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is a popular girl desperately tired of her superficial clique, consisting of three teenage girls, all named Heather. Almost a remedy for her adolescent blues, a motorbike-riding rebel named JD (Christian Slater) begins school at Westerberg, instantly befriending Veronica. After being scorned by queen-bee Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Veronica jokes about bringing her a hangover-cure made of Drain-O, but decides upon a combination of orange juice and milk – meant to merely induce vomiting. But when Heather picks up the mug of Drain-O by accident (and JD notices but keeps quiet) Heather Chandler chokes and dies, plunging melodramatically through a glass coffee table. To protect herself from accusations of murder, Veronica, an expert-forger, writes a suicide note in Chandler’s handwriting. Soon, Veronica and JD indulge in dangerous games with their classmates, bringing down the school’s most popular (and widely feared) students, all the while framing their deaths as a teen suicide epidemic.
Writer Daniel Waters imagined Heathers as an ambitious, three-hour Stanley Kubrick epic. After failing to get Kubrick on-board, Waters trimmed down the script, retaining the trademark witty dialogue. In Heathers, the lead’s biting commentary on life and high school hierarchy make her a teen icon and the twists and turns of the story are strong enough to cut through any adolescent cynicism. Michael Lehmann, who has since directed mainstream comedies and several television series for HBO, suitably makes the script the star and handles the few action sequences with aplomb. Stylistically, Heathers hardly breaks new ground, however a noticeable number of wide lenses and low angle shots are used – a nod, according to the director, meant to mirror the clashing styles of eighties teen comedies, b-grade horrors and the Kubrick works the screenwriter so-idolised. A young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater make a perfect pairing, both actors clearly comfortable in comedic roles. In fact, Ryder connected with her character so strongly she has often expressed a desire to film a sequel, though Waters and Lehmann have said numerous times that there are no plans for another Heathers film.
The producers wanted Heathers to be “the high school film to end all high school films”, but while the critics lavished it with praise, the film flopped at the box office – slowly gaining a cult following after its release on VHS in the early nineties. It wasn’t an easy project to get made either, facing numerous challenges before the first camera even started rolling. J.D. Salinger’s publishers denied the use of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in the film (meant to be connected to one of the ‘suicides’), actress Heather Graham (originally slated to play Heather McNamara) was forbidden from any involvement after her mother read the racy script and Doris Day reportedly refused to lend her original version of “Que Sera, Sera” (pivotal to the soundtrack) because the project contained profanity (a pet peeve of the saccharine singer). At the time of its release, Heathers was criticised by some for needlessly making “light” of a serious issue. Daniel Waters defended it, saying most films about teen suicide glorify or romanticise the act in some way, making it more appealing to those who are already emotionally vulnerable. To this day Waters claims Heathers does the opposite, making suicide seem “uncool” by satirising the repercussions and the act itself.
In its own morbid, off-beat way, Heathers completely ‘gets’ what it is to be unhappy in high school, more-so than any earnest John Hughes film could ever hope to capture. Heathers sends the clear message that it is perfectly normal to feel trapped and alone sometimes. Veronica even consoles Heather McNamara in the film with the line “if you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being, you’d be a game show host”. Though there have been a number of attempts to adapt it (a Heathers musical recently had its first reading in New York and a TV series is reportedly in the works) and to replicate its style (writer/comedian Tina Fey has admitted the 2004 film Mean Girls was heavily influenced by Heathers and was even directed by Daniel Water’s brother, Mark), the original Heathers is a true benchmark of the teen comedy genre...and you don’t have to be a teenager or a “diet coke-head” to work that out.