Well, it had to happen. We have finally reached the end of the 80s with this Back to School series of reviews. The 80s are often considered to be the “Golden Age of Teen Films,” largely due to the efforts of director-writer-producer John Hughes. In films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes skillfully mixed teen comedy with teen drama and the end results were some of the best-remembered and most influential films ever made. At the same time, it’s also can’t be denied that, even as he was dealing with real issues of class differences and sexuality, Hughes also tended to idealize his teenage protagonists. They were often cast as noble savages, struggling to survive in a world that was exclusively run by cynical and judgmental adults. In The Breakfast Club, Ally Sheedy says that when you grow up, your heart dies. That, more than anything, defines the way that most of the great teen films of the 80s tended to view the world.
By the end of the 80s, John Hughes had stopped making films about high school and teenagers and so, it is perhaps appropriate that the final Back to School review of the 80s should be for a 1989 film that often time seems to be taking place on a totally different plant from the films of John Hughes. If Hughes told us that your heart dies when you grow up, Heathers would seem to suggest that most people’s hearts were never alive to begin with.
Heathers takes place at Westerburg High, a school full of student so rich that their mascot is a Rottweiler. Westerburg is run by a clique of three mean girls, all of whom are named Heather. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is their leader. Cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) is weak-willed and insecure. And finally, Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is the smartest of the Heathers. She’s also bulimic. Now, there is a fourth member of the ruling clique but she’s a bit of an anomaly because she’s neither mean nor named Heather. Instead, her name is Veronica (Winona Ryder) and she is valued for her ability to forge signatures.
Since joining the Heathers, Veronica has drifted away from old friends like Betty Finn (Renee Estevez). And though Veronica quickly realizes that she doesn’t really belong with the Heathers, she doesn’t know how she can break free without also destroying her reputation of Westerburg. Then, she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), a prototypical rebel with a cause. J.D. is not only an outsider at Westerburg but he’s proud of it. Soon, he and Veronica are a couple and J.D. is pulling Veronica into his plans to destroy the social hierarchy of Westerburg High.
When a practical joke arranged by J.D. and Veronica leads to the accidental death of Heather Chandler, J.D. convinces Veronica to forge a suicide note. As a result, Heather Chandler is canonized by the same students that she previously terrorized. However, J.D. is not done killing. With each new death (and with each forged suicide note), a new social hierarchy starts to form at Westerburg until, eventually, J.D. comes up with a plan that owes a bit to the end of Massacre at Central High…
Heathers is a darker than dark comedy and one that I imagine probably could not be made today. (To be honest, I’m a little bit surprised that it could be made in 1989.) Seriously, a comedy where one of the main plot points is that students become more popular after everyone has been fooled into thinking they committed suicide? (Not to mention a scene where a grieving father shouts, “I love my dead gay son!”) People would get so offended if this film was made today but you know what? They would be totally missing the point. The film isn’t making fun of suicide as much as it’s exposing the hypocrisy of a society that only seems to care about people after they die. To me, the most important scenes aren’t the ones where people react to the fake suicides. Instead, the heart of Heathers‘s dark vision is to be found in the scene where a true outcast like Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) fails in her attempt to commit suicide and is ridiculed by the same students and teachers who were previously patting themselves on the back at Heather Chandler’s funeral.
Heathers is dark but it’s also a genuinely funny film, filled with great lines and performances. (“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” is my personal favorite.) It’s a film that still carries quite a satiric bite and a perfect film with which to end the 80s.