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.


January 27, 2012

Keaton and friend, Beetlejuice

When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was such a surprise hit in the summer of 1985, credit for its success went mainly in the direction of its nutty star. Somewhat lost in the phenomenon was the director of the movie, a first-time feature filmmaker named Tim Burton.

It was his first feature, but Burton wasn’t exactly unknown. He had a cult reputation already, based on two remarkable short films he had made for Disney: Vincent, an animated film about a morbid little boy who imagines himself as Vincent Price; and Frankenweenie, a bizarre live-action piece about a dead dog brought back to life. Those familiar with the shorts could see a lot Burton’s visual imagination at loose in Pee-wee’s movie.

Burton has now made his first post-Pee-wee film. Beetlejuice is very much in his wild, cartoony tradition, a real romp for an utterly original filmmaker. Not enough of it works as well as it should, and it may be a bit too anarchic, but it certainly doesn’t look quite like anything else to be found in a movie theater today.

As the film opens, a young couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) drive into town from their storybook house on a hill above a small Connecticut village. Just as we’ve gotten to know and like them, they drive their car through the side of a covered bridge, plunge into the river, and die.

Dead, they return to their house and pick up a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Turns out they have to inhabit their old house for 125 years before passing on to the next phase. They’ve reconciled themselves to this idea when an obnoxious couple (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara) buy the house and move in. In order to get these people to move out, the dead must haunt the place, and for that, they need the help of a professional “bio-exorcist,” Betelguise (Michael Keaton, in rotting-corpse makeup).

So Burton turns the film into an amusement ride of goofy thrills. It’s full of his macabre humor, from the sudden outpouring of “Day-O” at a sophisticated dinner party, to the Charles Addams daughter (nicely played by Winona Ryder) who likes the ghost couple better than her own geeky parents, to the mind-boggling casting of Robert Goulet (as Jones’ business partner) and Dick Cavett (as one of O’Hara’s pretentious art-world friends), both of whom are eventually assaulted by crazed shrimp salads.

But Burton’s masterpiece is the waiting room of the dead, an office where newly deceased people await the next step in the afterlife bureaucracy. The people here look like what they looked like at the moment of death, so there’s a surfer with a shark chewing his leg, and a steamroller victim who confesses he feels “a little flat” today.

What a strange movie. For some reason I have a funny feeling that 11-year-olds are going to like it a lot—not a bad recommendation, at that.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The movie seemed like a fun mess when it came out, destined for certain cult status, and then somehow it became a huge hit. That’s great, although I still don’t quite get the vault from little cult weirdie to multiplex sensation, but good for Burton—he’s had kind of a charmed career that way.