Saturday, 19 September 2009

Spiral568's Greatest Movie Countdown: No#97: Heathers

Of all the films and all the decades that will be represented in this countdown, I think its safe to say that the one you'll be seeing the least of is the eighties. There's just something about the ambiance of that particular time period that was just garish to the point of insanity, infecting near everything that came out of it, from the music to the styles to the films it has all dated to fossilization long before its time. OK maybe that's a bit dramatic, but the point stands, just to a lesser degree. If you watch films like the Breakfast Club or Repo Man or even The Terminator, you'll enjoy them or even think they're good, but the fact that they are of their time is something now to be tolerated rather then embraced, and that's certainly not the same for the sixties or seventies. But, amidst all this eighties hate quality is something that can not be contained and even if it has to fight its way through shoulder pads, through synth soundtracks and through turns of phrase like 'What's your damage', if its there, if it is a work that is as innovative, hilarious and delightfully twisted as Heathers is, then its worth all the unpleasant nostalgia. See in the hundred or so years that film-making has existed, I honestly can't think of film that did what Heathers did here to quite the same extent. It was and is now a true original, a movie that really showed people what a black comedy could do and may be to this day the best that admittedly quite specific sub-genre has to offer. And its a high school movie no less.

The plot sees Veronica (Winona Ryder), a too-smart-for-life kind of teenager as a reluctant member of high school royalty, accompanied by Heather Chandler, a sociopathically cruel alpha-bitch who enjoys humiliating a fat girl she's eloquently renamed Martha Dumptruck and going to parties with older boys, along with her two best gal pals, also named Heather (Imagine an unanesthetized mean Girls, in which the girls are allowed to say fuck) The thing is, Veronica meets a dreamy loner called JD (Christian Slater) with whom she makes an instant connection, and through him she puts her previously impotent thoughts of killing Heather to make high school a better place into a more realistic setting. Of course, they don't want to go to jail, so they fix it up as if it were a suicide and get off scot free. The thing is Heather's suicide, complete with Veronica and JD' s forged note, leads the town to elevate the deceased to near messianic level, people who hated her now love her, and JD upon seeing this reaction, is far from finished.

I'm of no doubt that teen suicide is not the first thing one would call upon in order to score laughs, but this movie addresses the issue in a way that is both honest and satiric. What this movie calls out is that the simple act of dying does not make someone more sensitive, more tolerant or more important. Its making the quite daring claim that teen suicide is not something that's tragic, rather its pathetic and deserves to be laughed at. It does not tolerate the self-pity of teenagers in a way that most films even approaching similar subject matter have done either out of earnestness or out of moral panic, but either a way this is a fresh perspective and if these kids choose to treat life so shabbily why should they be indulged and treated like saints? It calls out the hypocrisy of the legions of students who although they could give a shit about the person who did the dying, suddenly their distraught and life is barely worth living. Death is the great unifier it seems, and Heathers has a lot of fun with that, but an asshole is still an asshole even if he's six feet under and death does not absolve him or her of that. Even if we'd like it too. And this is something that I'd never seen a movie confront in such an honest way. In the same context it also mocks the apathy of the modern teenager toward death, as at the funerals of the various deceased, with JD and Veronica sitting at the back cracking wise about the various eulogies and familial reactions ( The darkest and arguably most funny of which is the hick father of one of the jocks of whom JD and Veronica kill and frame to make it look as though it was a homosexual suicide pact, who overcomes his intolerance to declare ' I love my dead gay son!' to the whole room. Perhaps this movies most singular moment of genius.)

Similarly the issues of high school life and society, and his Veronica observes in regards to killing the head cheerleader, ' You can kill her but someone else will just take her place tomorrow'. See the popular kids will ostracize the freaks they deem to be beneath them forever, whoever many you kill, and the freaks will be filled with self-doubt and loathing forever. There's also the use of the idea that suicide begins to become the thing to do in this town, because all the cool kids are doing it. The afore-mentioned Martha walks in front of a bus after she spills Diet Coke on herself, a fellow cheerleader tries to overdose after her friends hear her call a self-help program on the radio. This twisted idea is terrific in its simplicity, but also in that we see that above all high school is the beginning of the end in terms of thinking for yourself. Its when the world begins to tell you what to do and what to say. And you can't do anything to change this because its damn near Darwinian, the fittest and the system will survive and that's just that. You can accept or deny it but that's the way it will be. JD denies this, while Veronica slowly begins to accept it. Veronica is an interesting character in that she's possible the most direct audience surrogate in movie history. She's not so bound by morality as our usual heroines, but what she is is almost a sponge. Existing to make snarky comments and by shepherded by someone else's world view. First there's Heather, who she follows in high school bitchiness reluctance, then there's JD, who she follows in a violent and deadly form of social commentary with a similar reluctance. She complains about her situations but gets swept along with them regardless, only at the climax showing some real personal forcefulness. JD I sense though is the real voice of the piece, as the villain often is, and a lot of what he says and does is valid from a sociological perspective, its just has the downside of being insane.

What makes this the classic that is though, is the constant streams of jet black humor that is there throughout. A few examples:

" Jesus God in heaven, why did you have to kill such hot snatch?" ( A jock in response to the death of Heather.)

" I Shop therefore I am" ( Heather's philosophy)

" Save the speeches for Malcolm X, I just want to get laid" ( Some guy)

" Our love is God. Let's go get a slushee." ( JD in regard to life.)

And many more. Its kind of like Diablo Cody only more prescient. It presents all the tragedies of teenage life a some sort of twisted joke that we all will play out again and again way after its over. Which is in many ways a more cutting truth then we'd like from high school movie. But that's how Heather's works. It starts of like your regular teen movie, maybe a bit quicker and smarter and goes to places you'd never think it would dare to go and in that respect the success of this movie is most attributed to its screen-writer Daniel Waters, who never came close to anything this good again. Its such an individual work of insightfulness, of wit, of satire and in many ways of the form itself, its shows how much you can do on the page before the camera even enters the equation. In terms of really having something to say and sheer ambition, it would be one of the best screenplays I've ever seen on film. The actors play their part too though, particularly Winona Ryder who fits the self-superior Veronica like a dream, relishing Waters very quotable dialogue. with the viewer clearly being in on the joke as she takes joy in every enunciation. This is long before she appeared as Spock's mum of course. Christian Slater in a career making performance essentially plays the role as a Jack Nicholson impression, but somehow still manages to be awesome. Both of them give a performance to show why they hung around at the top for another ten years or so. Director Michael Lehmann relatively underplays it, which is certainly a good idea given how extravagant the script is, and that is something to be commended.

To put a final point on it, this is something close to the ultimate black comedy. It takes cliche's and tropes of every high school movie you've ever seen and turns them into something horrific yet hilarious. You'll laugh at the worst travesties that young life has to offer even if you don't want to. Its a masterpiece of cynicism, a tone heard in cinema without condemnation just far too rarely and this movie, if nothing else is evidence to why that standard is something that we don't want let alone need.

What's your damage.

No comments: