Teen moviedom’s greatest black comedy, a quarter of a century later
by Gordon Campbell
It didn’t start out in life with a lot of promise. Heathers was dreamt up by Daniel Waters, a 22 year old first-time scriptwriter who had done a 196 page first draft. Waters imagined that if he could only get the darn thing into the hands of Stanley Kubrick, the maestro would see the similarities to Full Metal Jacket – that’s if SK could envisage a high school cafeteria as the Army barracks in Full Metal Jacket – and would want to make it. Oh, it also had a first time director, a first time producer, a leading man (Christian Slater) who was only 19 at the time and an even younger lead actress (Winona Ryder) who turned 16 on set. Add in the creative conflict between the film-makers and the studio about the box office wisdom of killing off the entire cast at the end of the movie and re-uniting them in Heaven….hmm, now would that be a good idea, or not ?
Not that it mattered. Even saddled with a compromise soft ending, Heathers tanked at the box office, and went to video. There, it found its audience and quickly became one of the most enduringly loved and – most influential – movies of the past 25 years. You can read an entertaining (and recent) oral history from the surviving Heathers cast and crew right here. (Surviving? Alas, Kim Walker, who played the beautiful and bitchy Heather Chandler in the film, and who was Slater’s real life g.f. during the shoot, died of brain cancer at the age of 32 in 2001. Which makes her snarky line “ Did you have a brain tumour for breakfast” resonate, somewhat.)
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Heathers’ brief theatrical run. As a deliberately nasty riposte to the bittersweet teen movies of the 1980s ( Pretty In Pink, St Elmo’s Fire, Sixteen Candles) the Heathers film single-handedly buried that genre for good. It predated the sense of high school-as-hellmouth perfected by Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The bitchy girls films that followed in its wake were not only kept in the family – Mean Girls was directed by the brother of Daniel Waters – but came across as carbon copies.
Soft ending aside, Heathers took no prisoners. Teen suicide as a hilarious media beat-up? Guns in cafeterias as a jokey tresponse to high school bullies? Picked-on fat girls – hey, Martha Dumptruck – trying to end it all by walking in front of a bus? Immortal catch phrases: “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” “What’s your damage?” “ I love my dead gay son !” etc etc. Idiotic/venal parents, nitwit New Age teachers, the abuse of mineral water…Heathers had all the above, and more. In its current, final spasm of being embraced by the people who were once its prime targets, it has now been turned – like Hairspray before it – into a Broadway musical. The musical doesn’t sound very good.
There’s not a lot left to say about a film that has been uber-analysed and turned over as cultural mulch for the past quarter century. Until watching it again I hadn’t realised the character names mean something, in a Mark Twain / Archie comics sense at least. (eg Veronica Sawyer, her best friend Betty Finn etc. J.D. for James Dean, juvenile delinquent etc. ) The film has flaws, although Slater’s much criticised impression of Jack Nicholson isn’t one of them. Ryder and Slater are perfect; as someone else once said, Slater’s J.D. is like a Kabuki version of what it is to be a teenager. BTW, Heathers also makes outstanding misuse of the game of croquet, as a metaphor for cruelty. (Sub-footnote: other films that feature croquet include North by Northwest, Nosferatu and (aha, Kubrick again !) Barry Lyndon. ) Enduring puzzle : have a close look at that scene where J.D. first meets Veronica ; why is there a black kid stretched out asleep beside him on the cafeteria table ?
The actual flaws? Structurally, I don’t think the film ever survives from killing off (a) its three most entertaining villains and (b) its main love affair by only the half way mark. The last half of the film never finds a consistent tone – maybe everyone did have to die in order to make the slog up the home stretch seem more worthwhile. We’ll never know whether that original ending would have worked. Yet catching up again in heaven with Heather Chandler, Kurt and Ram, J.D. and Veronica would have been interesting. As it is, we’ve been left with a pretty great evocation of high school hell.
Teen movie footnote : Heathers is most often bracketed with Mean Girls, or with Dazed and Confused. Since Heathers finally found its audience on video, I’d like to think there could be a similar chance for The Myth of the American Sleepover ( released 2010, total box office take : $40,000) to also find its true audience on DVD. The simplicity of the plot – some 14 and 15 year old kids spend the last weekend of summer wandering around their neighbourhood, from party to party – is pretty similar to Dazed and Confused. This time though, most of the main protagonists are girls.
No cellphones or other timebound stuff are visible. The kids look and act like believable 14 year olds – instead of the usual teen movie cockiness, a kiss or hand-holding is a big river to cross, fraught with potential for embarrassment. In fact, the characters can almost be divided into those willing to take a chance, and those prone to second-guess themselves into inertia as life floats on by. Giving up the certainties of youth for the ambiguities of adulthood was also a theme of another recent teen movie The Spectacular Now, which put that very idea into its title. In Sleepover, an 18 year old expresses it this way: “They trick you into giving up your childhood for all these promises of adventure. By the time you realize what you’ve lost, it’s too late.”
Daniel Waters never get a response from Kubrick to Heathers. Maybe the pitch was a problem. It can be. The Myth of The American Sleepover must have been a nightmare for who-ever had to raise the necessary finance. I can’t imagine what the pitch would have been : well, nothing much happens over the course of one night, in some undefined place, somewhere in time. While watching it, I thought of how incredulous the Film Commission would probably be if anyone was ever insane enough to suggest a similar proposal – where’s the narrative arc, where are the key plot points, the three act structure etc etc. And maybe they would be right. The Myth of The American Sleepover hasn’t made any money – but it will always be a minor miracle of a film.
Plus, it looks like the guy who made it – David Robert Mitchell – is no one trick pony. His new film, a horror movie called It Follows screened at Cannes last month, to great reviews.
Fuck me with a chainsaw, literally.