September 28, 2012

The wicked new film Heathers plays a bit like Dr. Strangelove Goes to High School. In other words, the problems, fears, and anxieties of the teen years are handled here with a blackly comic edge that occasionally topples over into surrealism.

The fact that Heathers treats teen murder and suicide as appallingly funny has led it to be deemed controversial, although it must be so only among people who have no sense of humor. Heathers is unblinking and uproarious, and like any good black comedy, its exaggerations seem uncannily on target. (Has any nuclear-anxiety film been more accurate than the exaggerated Dr. Strangelove?)

Heathers focuses on the most powerful clique in school, three snotty girls named Heather, plus their newest member, Veronica (Winona Ryder). The Heathers are ruthless and iron-willed, given to pulling unspeakably cruel pranks and delivering withering put-downs. (When an unpopular student tries unsuccessfully to kill herself after a rash of apparent suicides strikes the school, a Heather shrugs: “Just another example of a geek imitating the popular people and failing miserably.”)

Soon Veronica chafes at the horror of the Heathers, especially after she meets an anti-social rebel named J.D. (Christian Slater) who talks like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. They team up to take revenge on the Heathers, a revenge that quickly turns to murder.

Like many black comedies, Heathers has some problems resolving itself. But along the way it bristles with savage invention: Veronica and J.D. arguing over whether to include the word “myriad” in an invented suicide note for one of their victims; a Heather absent-mindedly moussing her hair with holy water at a funeral; two high school studs in their open coffins with their football helmets on.

Along with another winning performance by Winona Ryder (the morbidly inclined daughter in Beetlejuice), Heathers introduces two first-timers behind the camera: director Michael Lehmann, whose dead-on approach perfectly suits the wild happenings, and screenwriter Daniel Waters, author of some of the most quotable dialogue of the year.

I interviewed Waters when he was in Seattle for the film’s debut at the Seattle International Film Festival. Waters is a 26-year-old who, upon arriving in Hollywood, worked at a video store for a year and a half while writing Heathers, his first attempt at a feature script.

“My naivete paid off,” he said, “I didn’t write something to be commercial, and it sold.” Independent studio New World made the film, but during filming, Waters said, “there was great suspense over whether New World would find out what we were making, and come and close down the set.”

New World did balk at the movie’s original ending, in which the heroine blows herself up and attends “A prom in heaven, with all the dead characters coming back to life.”

Incidentally, Waters swears that Heathers is not the revenge of someone who hated his own school. “It weirds a lot of people out,” he said, “but I liked high school.”

First published in the Herald, May 18, 1989

Twenty years later Waters returned to the Seattle International Film Festival with his movie Sex & Death 101, and I interviewed him again. His manner was about the same, I am glad to report. Heathers turned into kind of a classic, which it deserves.