Michael Lehmann’s opening trio of movies – Heathers, Meet the Applegates, and, yes, Hudson Hawk – marked him out as a bright talent in the realm of absurdist humour, one to rival Joe Dante and Tim Burton. And then what became of him? A retreat from the mauling Bruno’s vanity vehicle received, into likeable but indifferent fare, and now a jobbing career on TV. It seems so unfair.
As for his collaborator in Heathers’ pitch-black comedy, Daniel Waters, the man who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick in mind as director, no less, he’s the classic example of starting on a giddy high and freefalling ever since. Although, he made notable contributions to Hawk (the Hawkster), Batman Returns and Demolition Man, and also directed Noonie in the underseen but quite decent Sex and Death 101. Together, they made the last word in high-school movies, that word being a slice of astonishingly creative vernacular that stands out today as every bit as crude, cruel and hilarious as it was then.
Pretty much everyone involved in the movie cites it as a reaction to John Hughes’ enormously successful stranglehold on teendom during the ’80s, before confessing they actually really like Hughes’ pictures. But you can see how Heathers is rightly fuelled by the spleen of wanting to right the misleading wrongs of Hughes’ essentially life-affirming, uplifting take on the trials and tribulations of high school. Waters professes to have loved the place, mind (curious, as he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would have).
Although IMDB would have Heathers as a 1988 release, that’s on account of a solitary festival screening. It arrived in the UK late ’89, and I first caught it almost a year later in my first year at university (on a big screen, no less, likely a rarity for a picture whose following has derived predominately from video). Probably the ideal moment to see it, since although its stars – unlike many of Hughes’ – are age appropriate, the writing and visuals are so stylised that it’s almost too good to be lumped in with mere teen-angst-bullshit fodder. Waters rightly recognises the UK as one of the few places where the picture instantly went down a storm (elsewhere it got titled Lethal Attraction – Germany – and Fatal Games – France – indicating the ailing New World Pictures, rather than the protesting Waters, knew nothing about marketing movies).
Perhaps predictably, when critics were nigh-on universally lauding it to the heavens, Pauline Kael struck a grouchy note (“It’s not fun, and it lacks a punchline”). She found fault with Lehmann’s approach (that he doesn’t find the right mood for the gags) and Waters’ “layers of didacticism”, although admitting he had a “malicious talent for pinning down psychological cant”. She, like many – including Waters – complained about the ending dissolving the satire (although really, something more obvious revisiting the picture, its satirical elements are frontloaded into the first two-thirds).
I’ve never had a problem with the ending (I’ll come back to that). Kael wanted sting, but – just as she complains about Winona Ryder being too real – I suspect, if she’d had it her way, she’d have bemoaned the picture as one-note. As Veronica Sawyer, Ryder invests you in the proceedings as much as you laugh at them. Far from the pieces of the picture not fitting together, it’s the ability to stretch itself, while stylistically coherent under Lehmann’s heightened gaze (“razzing the material”) and Waters’ devilish delivery, that makes it work so well. Or, as JD (Christian Slater) might say, “You say tomato…”
Bart Mills, in the Film Yearbook Volume 8, delivered a rapturous essay, awarding it the status of one of their Films of the Year (as he suggests, the kids who loved Hughes’ films have grown up and are now drawn to films that are about teens but made for adults), noting its darker approach as a parallel to the earlier River’s Edge (early Keanu, and batshit crazy Crispin Glover). Where that film takes in indifference to the deaths of peers in a morbid, soulless context (softened somewhat, ultimately, by the photogenic romance between Reeves and Ione Skye), Heathers lacerates the cult surrounding teenage suicide at the time, sticking barbs into the eulogies and hypocritical posthumous veneration of the formerly loathed.
Pauline Fleming: We have to talk. Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.
Pricking the bubble of a taboo subject with unbridled mirth – a subject that had been fed upon, vulture like, by a media desirous of revelling in the carnage while paying lip service to its seriousness in a desire for ratings – is such a rich seam that Waters didn’t even begin run out of material. No one reacts in a genuinely aggrieved way to the loses – apart from Brad’s little sister, in a funeral insert that drew a groan from Waters on the commentary but which is the kind of bubble burster that wisely prevents Heathers from becoming as mercilessly distracted from reality as the characters it’s depicting.
Mom: So what was the first day after Heather’s suicide like?
Veronica: I don’t know, it was okay, I guess.
On the one hand, there’s Veronica’s refreshingly blasé approach (asked what she will be doing with her afternoon, she replies “Mourning, maybe watch some TV”). On the other, the manner in which Waters hones in on everyone’s entirely self-centred reaction to tragedy, be it in a hilariously detached (“Are we going to be tested on this?”), entirely delusional (“She said I was boring. Now I realise, I wasn’t boring, it’s just that she was dissatisfied with her life”) or utterly cynical fashion.
The school teachers are priceless in this respect, as we cut from JD arguing that including “myriad” in their forged Heather Chandler suicide note, a word she flunked in her language test a week earlier, is fitting as a badge for her failures at school, to one of her teachers commenting “I must say I was impressed to see she made proper use of the word ‘myriad’…”.
Pauline Fleming: We must revel in this revealing moment!
So versed are JD and Veronica in the book of suicide clichés that they instantly agree with ending the note on “I died knowing no one knew the real me”. And the irony of an actual suicide attempt (poor Martha Dumptruck) is greeted with derision (“Just another example of the geek trying to imitate the popular people in the school and failing miserably”), rather underlying Waters’ point about the fakery of emotional engagement.
The actual imitator, popular person Heather McNamara (Lisa Falk), has the really weak reasons (“I’m failing math. My home life is a mess”), unlike Martha, who has been systematically abused her entire educational life. Perhaps the New World head was responding subconsciously in demanding a different the ending, because in the narrative itself, the faked suicides do indeed promulgate suicidal tendencies.
Veronica Sawyer: Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit now has a body count.
Heathers, along with Beetlejuice, is the signature Ryder role. She turned sixteen during shooting, and for the next decade plus, she’d be consistently playing and looking younger than she was (such that by the time of Girl, Interrupted she’s nearing thirty and still passing herself off as an addled teen, in a movie that falls into the trap of treating the same distressed subject matter as Heathers with cloying reverence). Here, however, she brings to the role a very keyed-in sense of maturity. The dialogue helps, of course, but Ryder is personified by this movie in a manner she hasn’t even come close to since.
Michael McDowell of Beetlejuice gave her the screenplay (no wonder she’d love sequels to both movies; they’re the best roles she’d ever get) and she went after the part with abandon (Waters had Jennifer Connelly in mind). All agree that Veronica was far nastier on the page, and that Ryder made her nicer (Waters, as self-effacingly critical as he is of his work, clearly didn’t begrudge this as he went on to cast her in Sex and Death 101). Even in the first cut, apparently, you didn’t like Veronica, and Lehmann and editor Norman Hollyn had to work to tip the balance.
It’s easy to see why, even now. I do think Mills is a little charitable towards his perception of Veronica’s innocence in his review, which may be a consequence of Noonie’s inability to eschew compassion; JD’s “You wanted to believe it”, but her true feelings were too gross and icky, is closer to the mark.
She gets over Heather Chandler’s death far too easily for someone entirely horrified by her boyfriend’s scheme, happy to kick back and scoff at TV interviews with classmates expressing grief. I mean, really, after her involvement in offing a Heather, she then goes and kills Kurt with an “Ich luge” bullet. Her actions up to this point make much more sense if she’s a straight-up psycho like JD, but also far less interesting; that she isn’t makes the ending consequently more interesting.
Veronica: Great pâté, but I’m gonna have to motor if I wanna be ready for that funeral.
Veronica’s confidential diary confessions immediately put us on her side, inclusive and privy to her deliriously reasoned eloquence, and her responses to her peers are ones we can readily identify with (her kindness towards those she has left behind as she scaled Westerburg High’s social ladder is a little less believable, however, or she would never have taken the steps she did). And Ryder simply aces Waters’ dialogue, even if she also gets all his clunkers.
For every admission that she wants to kill Heather and that this is “more than just a spoke in my menstrual cycle” there’s an overwritten ouch-er like “If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host” or “Are we going to prom or to hell?” or “No one can stop JD. Not the FBI or the CIA or the PTA” or “I’m going to have to send my SAT scores to San Quentin instead of Stanford?”. Actually, I quite like all of them, but they’re a little too deliberated. Oh, and I love Veronica’s monocle, even if it makes her the “Albert Speer of the Heathers”. Or even especially because.
JD: Seven schools in seven states, and the only thing different is my locker number.
Veronica’s grounding enables those around her to operate even more in the realm of caricature, type or archetype. Waters’ impulse with Jason Dean was that “the coolest male teenager would have to be a psychopath”, so who better than Christian Slater as a young Jack Nicholson (who had delivered quite a few mad Jacks by this time)? Like Ryder, Slater would spend most of his career failing to capitalise on a couple of defining fledgling turns (his last great movie role being True Romance). Apparently, Brad Pitt did a reading for JD, but was deemed “too sweet” (also, a bit old)*.
JD: People will look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, “Now, there’s a school that self-destructed, not because society didn’t care, but because school was society”. Now, that’s deep.
JD’s psychopathy is fascinating in as much as he takes moral stands that suggest a bringer of justice and righter of wrongs, but they’re really just a means to an outlet for his own appetite for carnage. The episode with the hull cleaner (“I say we go with big blue here”) is effectively a test to see if Veronica will get on board with his Bonnie & Clyde fantasies; it’s only when she has no choice but to recognise her complicity and that he’s “a fucking psycho”, spurning his advances, that he turns nasty, and is as willing to manipulate and change allegiances (teaming with Heather Duke) to get what he wants. His funniest moment might be the admission that yes, “Maybe I am killing everyone in the school” but that’s “because nobody loves me!” as ridiculously facile/petulant as anyone’s reason for doing anything destructive, to self or otherwise.
Veronica Sawyer: What is your damage, Heather?
Kael opined that Heathers lost something once Kim Walker’s spiteful Heather Chandler was out of the picture (Walker sadly died of a brain tumour in 2001, making one of her funniest lines, “Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast?”, bizarrely ironic), but I’d argue Shannen Doherty’s Heather Duke is more than up to the challenge. Kael isn’t wrong about Walker’s “glittering teen-age bravado”, though (“They all want me as a friend or a fuck. I’m worshipped at Westerburg, and I’m only a junior”) or downing the “death potion” – big blue to me and you. Her throat-clutching gasp of “Corn nuts!” is another of Waters’ most wonderfully gleeful little eccentricities, mocking meaningful suicide notes and last words while giving the genuine ones not an ounce of resonance (apart from on the oddball register).
Veronica Sawyer: Why are you such a mega bitch?
Heather Duke: Because I can be. Veronica, why are you pulling my dick?
Doherty’s professional reputation precedes her, although I only really knew her from Our House with Wilfred Brimley when this came out (so she was sweetness and light). Lehmann attested on the commentary “Shannon was great to work with”, to Waters audible disbelief. It’s also said that she was aghast after the first screening (“No one told me it was a comedy”). Which I find a little hard to believe, but on the other hand no one in Starship Troopers actually realised they were making a satire, so it isn’t beyond the bounds of credulity.
Doherty wouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vein, yet was quite happy to reel off other blue language. Heather Graham, cast as Heather McNamara, didn’t even get that far, with her devout parents preventing her from taking the part once they got a look at the script (as far as off-screen bonds go, Lisanne Falk, who also appeared with Walker in Say Anything… became firm friends with Ryder).
Ram Sweeney: Jesus Christ in heaven… Why’d you have to kill such hot snatch?
I have to admit, as plum as the main parts are, it’s the less central characters that always have me in the biggest fits. Jocks Kurt Kelly (Lance Fenton) and Ram Sweeney (Patrick Labyorteaux) have the most side-splitting plotline in the picture, and pretty much every line reading Labyorteaux gives is a gold (when Kurt suggests a Veronica Sawyer-Heather Chandler sandwich would be “so righteous”, Ram concurs: “Oh, hell yes. I wanna set a Heather on my Johnson and just start spinnin’ her around like a goddam pinwheel”).
Ram’s moronic consistency is endlessly entertaining, such that he and Kurt are even outmatched by their natural prey (“Say, ‘I like to suck big dicks’” he demands of a geek he has in a shoulder lock: “Oh, you like to suck big dicks” comes the response. Another great nerd moment finds Veronica asking Rodney what’s under the gym; he somehow contrives to make his “The boiler room” response pathetically suggestive).
JD: Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram hand nothing to offer the school but date rape and AIDS jokes.
We could add cow tipping to JD’s list, but that’s more extra-curricular. I’d hazard the only thing that has really changed in terms of school bullying since Heathers is that it’s now a multi-media thing. Waters’ turning their greatest prejudices on Ram and Kurt (as we saw above) is deliciously twisted, such that they hide “a forbidden love, forced to live the life of sexist beer guzzling jock assholes”. The proof being JD’s “homosexual artefacts”, consisting of a copy of Stud Puppy, a candy dish, a Joan Crawford postcard and, best of all thirty years later, mineral water (“Oh man! They were fags?” offers Officer Milner in grim realisation on seeing said item). And then there’s the reaction of Kurt’s dad.
The parents in Heathers are consistently hilarious prospects, as colourful as the kids, so setting them in marked contrast to those in your average John Hughes movie (Waters suggested Hughes’ error was in placing all kids’ woes at their parents’ door; there may be something to this, but the two are also necessarily entwined). The funeral of Kurt and Ram finds the former’s father standing over this son’s casket (hilariously, they’re in football gear, complete with ball) delivering a eulogy “My son’s a homosexual, and I love him. I love my dead gay son”, which JD wryly notes wouldn’t be the response if he had “a limp wrist with a pulse”.
Veronica’s Dad: Goddam, will somebody tell me why I smoke these damn things?
Veronica: Cos you’re an idiot.
Veronica’s Dad: Oh yeah, that’s it.
Veronica’s Mum: You too.
We also meet Veronica’s oblivious parents (Jennifer Rhodes and William Cort), mum forever offering pâté and dad unsure why he does anything he does (but certain that “I don’t patronise bunny rabbits”). And JD’s equally deranged like pater like son, of Big Budd Construction, angry at how he can’t demolish a hotel because “Glen Miller and his band once took a shit there” but jubilant at a detonation in which “I put a Norwegian in the basement”. For his part, JD’s problems of detachment may stem from the fact that the “Last time I saw mom she was waving from a library window in Texas”.
Heathers has too much classic dialogue to do it even a shred of justice here. Even Waters’ audible grievance that he had to make do with Moby Dick as a go-to-teen-angst tome to quote, rather than evidently more plausible Catcher in the Rye, elicits some suitably daffy dialogue (“Eskimo”). JD’s “Greetings and salutations” would surface again in the Waters re-written Demolition Man, notably spoken by there by this movie’s vicar Glenn Shadix (also of Beetlejuice and Lehmann’s Meet the Applegates). A few further choice ones follow:
Veronica Sawyer: You’re beautiful. (It’s all in the delivery.)
Heather Chandler: Come on, it’ll be very.
Heather Chandler: Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa?
Brad: Save the speeches for Malcolm X. I just want to get laid.
Veronica Sawyer: Betty Finn was a true friend and I sold her out for a bunch of Swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads.
Heather Chandler: I got paid in puke.
Veronica Sawyer: Lick it up, baby. Lick. It. Up.
Student: Did you hear? Schools cancelled today cause Kurt and Ram killed themselves in a repressed homosexual suicide pact.
Heather Chandler: God, Veronica. My afterlife is so boring. If I have to sing Kumbaya one more time…
Veronica Sawyer: Hey mom, why so tense?
JD: Let’s face it, the only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.
Ah, yes. The ending. Waters was and is very critical of the studio-mandated climax, commenting that the picture is “building to an ending it doesn’t get” (the picture is much more of a “straight” thriller in its final act – meaning some of the contrivance, such as JD arriving in Veronica’s room at the moment she is playing dead and then having him helpfully spill the beans about his grand plan, plays more glaringly than it would otherwise – but I don’t necessarily agree that merits an apocalyptic finale).
In the original screenplay, Veronica blows herself and the school up, having killed JD, and there’s a subsequent prom in heaven. Here, Veronica takes charge, announcing “Heather, my love, there’s a new sheriff in town” before making a movie date with wheelchair-bound Martha.
Mills attests “This conventional reconversion to virtue finish is a typical 1980s loss of nerve” and certainly, that’s true of New World, vetoing Waters’ take on the absurd grounds it would encourage teenage suicide. But for me, it would only dissatisfy if the result were a bad ending. The exploding JD, Jesus Christ posing, faulty timer interrupting his cool moment, and lighting Veronica’s cigarette as he blows (echoing his earlier smoking off her glowing palm), set to David Newman’s sublime score, is a great, supremely satisfying scene (Newman hasn’t composed a better score, all gorgeous, woozy, dreamy synths complementing Lehmann’s stylish, poppy, slo-mo direction; DP Francis Kenny has since lensed Nicolas Roeg’s Cold Heaven and all five seasons of Justified).
And Que Sera Sera bookends the picture beautifully; indeed, there are a number of neat, clever gestures here. The picture’s first encounter between Veronica and JD finds her asking the lunchtime poll question, notably revolving around death and the end of the world (“You inherit five million dollars the same day aliens land on earth and say they’re going to blow it up in two days. What do you do?”) Here, in their last moment together, JD rejoinders by asking “Now that you’re dead, what are you going to do with your life? Blow up all the schools?”
Yes, the high-school explosion notion is big and makes a mark (school was society), but it bears noting that it’s a derivative ending, of If… amongst others, and I’m not sure the heaven coda would have really landed as intended (notably, the Eskimo dream sequence, funny as it is, is less impactful for the surrounding material being heightened anyway). And anyway, one might posit that Veronica’s nicer (less Republican?) rule only superficially changes anything. Like all leaders, she has calculation and murder in her veins. We’re not really buying her quiet life with Betty and Martha.
You can call it uneven (Kael), or you can look at it in terms of trapping one into sympathising with someone who has done terrible things and yet gets off scot free. High school goes on, and most minds remain oblivious. Yes, the ending’s weak if you want a movie where “justice” is blatantly served, but it never felt to me that Waters’ ending (obviously, I don’t have the option of putting it to the test) would have made any marked difference, except maybe through the thought that I’d seen such spirited nihilism elsewhere – that kind of ending – so it maybe wasn’t that rebellious after all.
Certainly, Waters didn’t think Veronica went on to become a good girl. Ryder has always pressed for a sequel, but the furthest the writer went to placate her was suggesting an off-the-cuff premise in which she works for a senator (Meryl Streep) and ends up assassinating the President (which sounds great, actually). Some also suggest a Force-ghost-style JD would be haunting her movements (shades of Mr. Robot there). Whether it ever happens – and it gets less or more likely with each passing day, given the unlikely vehicles that are currently getting exhumed, and there’s also the forthcoming TV anthology series – it would be great to get this team back together for something else, not in the obligatory Fierce Creatures sense but with something Waters has been genuinely inspired to write.
So yeah, the ending might be a flaw, but almost every cult movie has a flaw. In no way does it prevent Heathers from continuing to stand out; it doesn’t get old. Hughes’ teen movies are now charming for their vintage, but Heathers’ bile is as fresh and merciless as ever it was. Colour me impressed.
*Addendum 27/04/23: However, there’d have been a certain symmetry to Ryder paired with Pitt. Both were born the opposite gender to the one for which they’re known.