Monday, October 03, 2011

What is your damage: Remembering a great cult classic

“It's one thing to want someone out of your life, but it's another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid draino!" This line is from one of the many memorable scenes in the dark comedy Heathers. The film satirizes the quintessential story of teenage angst and high school drama with dark humour and cynicism. It takes the idea of rebelling against the popular crowd to the extreme by employing murder, suicide and other violence as forms of rebellion. At the time of its release in 1989, it was unlike any teen movie that had come out before.
The high school setting was familiar. The divide between the popular kids and the ordinary kids, nerds and outcasts wasn’t new. It was the cruel viciousness of the in-crowd and the perverse rebelliousness of the unpopular that gave the film a fervent tone of mean-spiritedness that set it apart from other films in the teenage macabre.
 
“Heathers” refers to a trio of popular girls named Heather who rule the school and torment the unpopular kids. Veronica is the reluctant hanger-on who doesn’t much like her friends or their behavior, but goes along with them out of a sense of obligation. When she questions their cruelty, she’s told by the meanest of the Heathers – Heather Chandler – that popularity is not for the weak.
When J.D., a mysterious and dangerous newcomer emerges at the school, Veronica falls for him and confides in him her real hate for Heather Chandler. The two join together to pull a prank on Heather for threatening to ruin Veronica’s reputation after the two girls have a heated argument at a frat party. They break into Heather’s house. Veronica wants to serve Heather a gross drink concoction to make her puke her guts out. J.D. suggests a cup of liquid draino and pours the cleaner into a cup. Veronica finds J.D.’s idea amusing, figuring it’s all in jest. Meanwhile, Veronica makes an alternate drink of orange juice and milk. While J.D. and Veronica share a kiss, Veronica mistakenly grabs the draino laced drink.

Heather, unaware of what’s in the cup, gulps back the liquid draino, and seconds after consuming it, dives head first into a glass coffee table. The gleeful surprise on J.D.’s face as he looks down at Heather’s body covered in broken glass is contrasted perfectly by Veronica’s look of frightened astonishment. The dialogue the characters exchange as they hover over Heather’s body is wonderfully sarcastic and funny. It’s this scene that introduces the film’s notion that teenage angst and rebellion have a body count, and establishes suicide as a cool thing to do. The scene also sets in motion other staged murder-suicides, ending with a few sticks of dynamite and a giant bang.

Heathers was not a commercial success at the time of its release. It found its audience later on video and cable and became one of the most notable films of the 1980s. The film was unlike other teen comedies that were so popular in the 1980s, particularly the films by John Hughes, which were lighter, sappier and sillier. The teens in Heathers weren’t archetypal like nerds trying to fit in, or ordinary girls crushing on the hot quarterback from afar, or the misunderstood loners whom no one got, or awkward, gawky girls who got transformed into hot chicks. You were either a Heather or a nobody. The film took an unflinching look at the maliciousness and cruelty of high school and showed that you were lucky if you managed to get out alive. Its influence can be seen in similar films like Jawbreaker, Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Mean Girls.

8 comments:

  1. This isn't a popular opinion, but I don't think Heathers went far enough. I'd have liked to see it go a lot darker.

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  2. This film is hilarious. "I love my dead gay son!"

    I love the humor of it and how out there it is.

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  3. @Movie Guy Steve - I agree that the movie loses its nerve towards the end when Veronica wakes up to the gravity of what she and J.D. have done. The turnabout sort of undermines the film's relentless dark satire, but I think it was definitely the darkest teen film of its time and it reminds me of when Winona Ryder was at the top of her game.

    @thevoid99 - The screenplay definitely has some very funny and memorable lines, and that line you quoted is a great one.

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  4. A great movie that could not possibly be made today. Let's see...a comedy about teen murder and teen suicide that includes a gun in a school, a bomb in a school, date rape played for humor, homophobia played for humor, cutting, sexually active teens, oral sex from teens, teens smoking, etc., etc. I can just see a studio greenlighting that today.

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  5. @Chip Lary - You may be right. After all, Heathers was a satire before its time; before tragic events like Columbine. I'm not sure that a film like it couldn't be made today. Though maybe not as a comedy. With the trend of remaking old movies alive and well, it isn't inconceivable to think that a filmmaker out there somewhere will consider remaking Heathers. Though it was more a cult classic than a classically beloved film, so maybe not.

    There was talk of a sequel at one point, but that seems very unlikely given that it's been more than 20 years since the first film, and I'm not sure on what stage the same depiction of angst and rebellion would be as effective if not in high school.

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  6. @JBT - not to sound like an old fogey, but I hope they don't remake it. The reason is that they would make it PG-13, which would gut most of what made the movie so funny. In fact, Mean Girls is probably as close to a modern remake of Heathers as we are going to get.

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  7. One of my all time favorite comedies. Thanks for posting a review.

    I agree with Chip that Mean Girls is the Closest thing to a Heathers remake that stands very well on it's own and is actully one of my favorite most recent High School Comedies

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    1. I just love the film and couldn't help but write a post about it.

      "Mean Girls" is pretty comparable to "Heathers." Perhaps not as dark, but in definitely the same vain and I agree with you that it's a clever, entertaining and smart high school comedy. I really have to watch that again soon. It's been awhile and "Mean Girls" is a great film. I'm always surprised by Rachel McAdams performance since she doesn't often play the mean girl.

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