The second in our ‘My Favourite’ series sees Claire Schultz discuss Michael Lehmann’s black comedy, Heathers.
In the late 1980s American teenagers were killing themselves. Youth suicide rates skyrocketed to the point of national phenomena: The New York Times frantically searched for the root of the issue while People reported on suicide pacts. They blamed drugs, media, family issues, social pressure. It was the age of the “After School Special” and the “Very Important Episode”. The John Hughes Brat Pack ruled the cinema with just the right amount of teenage angst. Shoulder pads and perms were the height of fashion.
It is from this that Heathers emerged, guns blazing, a no-holds-barred, scathing satire of American high school. It was, in 1988, a warped reflection of an era. Twenty-seven years later, it resonates just as strongly. The world of Heathers is pitch-dark and merciless: a football player dies – his classmates celebrate having time off school; an overweight girl attempts (and fails) to commit suicide – she is mocked for attempting to mimic the popular kids. This is high school in America; mediocrity is celebrated, no one really cares if you live or die.
The Breakfast Club this isn’t. Heathers is less interested in finding the hidden layers in each high school trope than stretching those tropes to their very limits. The “princess” here is just as cruel as she seems, and the “criminal” is exactly that. JD (Christian Slater) wears a long black coat not unlike Bender, but he’s not misunderstood, he’s just pathetic. He fires blanks in the cafeteria and ropes Winona Ryder’s Veronica into a Bonnie and Clyde-style killing spree, staging each death as a suicide. It is these deaths that respond to the sensationalisation of the real-world suicide pandemic; students feign mourning to get on TV, the fictional band Big Fun have a massive hit with “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)”. Each murdered student gains popularity after death, posthumously granted substance from forged suicide notes.
Heathers is a cruel, clever movie, resplendent in its highly stylised audiovisual design. Each of the titular Heathers is colour-coded: red for power, green for envy, yellow for cowardice. And Veronica is blue—blue for strength, blue for sadness. Their colours seep into the world around them, creating a strong visual sense of the power structure at play (keep an eye out for the Red Scrunchie of Power). The soundtrack is dark, melodramatic synth tinged with a wild west whistle for the “dark horse” JD. The resulting film is striking and feels remarkably modern, despite being twenty-seven years old.
And it’s funny. I have a soft spot for black comedy, and with gems like ‘Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,’ the film hits it perfectly. Daniel Waters wrote the script – his brother, Mark, directed Mean Girls. There is a lot to discuss about Heathers, but I don’t want to spoil it. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out. Give it a go; as Veronica Sawyer would say, it’ll be so ‘very’.
Featured image credit – Pinterest