The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'Heathers' : Monkey See We look at the 1988 black comedy classic Heathers, which is one of the most unsettling comedies about teenage murderers you will ever see.
NPR logo The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'Heathers'

The Summer Of '80s Movies: 'Heathers'

We've been talking this week quite a bit about how much John Hughes knew about life in high school, but Daniel Waters, who wrote the 1989 blacker-than-black comedy Heathers, knew something too.

If Hughes understood the vulnerable, exposed bellies of sixteen-year-olds and the way high school can make you want to crawl inside a sleeping bag and not emerge until college, Waters understood, to put it plainly, the way high school can make you want to poison someone.

Waters understood how the overt bullying and covert sadism among high-school students is, at times, so brutal and relentless that if it took place outside the high-school context, you'd probably classify it as psychotic, or at least indicative of a very unquiet mind. Hughes understood how all the resulting anger can be turned inward; Waters understood how it might be turned outward — and while they both wrote for laughs much of the time, you can tell that they both meant it.

Little Nicholson, why it's your friends who will kill you, and the color red, after the jump...

The specifics are these: Veronica (Winona Ryder) is the unhappy fourth member of the most powerful clique at her school. The other three are the Heathers Chandler, McNamara, and Duke (played by Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, and Shannen Doherty — a couple of years before Beverly Hills, 90210). Red-scrunchied Heather Chandler is the leader. and the only one with a real taste for (figurative) blood. She devises plots to cause pain to harmless nerds, she abuses her followers ... she's the perfect example of one of life's great mysteries: the popular girl no one likes.

Veronica acquires a new boyfriend named J.D., a new kid in a black trenchcoat. J.D. is played by Christian Slater, who is, as many noted at the time, doing his best Jack Nicholson.

(In fact, one of the many interesting questions Heathers raises is this: Are you supposed to notice he's doing Jack Nicholson? Is that part of the conscious subtext, the juxtaposition of a specific adult tough-guy icon and a high-school setting? Or is this just what Slater — who was mostly unknown at the time, though I knew him from, er, Ryan's Hope — thought "tough guy cracking wise" sounded like?)

The arrival of J.D. is the introduction of chaos into a regimented system. The character makes no sense as a teenager, and based on what he has to say, you wouldn't be surprised to learn he was secretly 30 and just out of prison. He is not of this world, this world where Veronica lives. What happens when you add to this volatile environment a person who has no regard for the rigid social rules of the Heathers, and little interest in any social rules at all?

Long story short, J.D. serves as the catalyst to unleash Veronica's buried rage, and before you know it, students are dying, and Veronica kind of didn't mean for it to happen, but she's not entirely sorry, either.

The thing that makes Heathers so interesting (in addition to the fact that it's so funny) is the decision to choose, as the fed-up student who begins taking out the popular kids, not a tormented outcast, but one of their own. It is an often-forgotten fact that the degree to which the most popular abuse the least popular is easily exaggerated: it happens, but much of the time, the nerds are simply invisible to people like the Heathers; they form their own little circles in which life is not all that bad. Band geeks and so forth aren't necessarily having a bad time in fact, even if they are at the bottom of the totem pole in theory.

Much of the most jaw-dropping abuse is not one clique on another, jock-on-geek. It's the circular firing squad of every group against itself, and the most socially egotistical kids care about that and stand to lose from it more than anyone. (This is an insight Heathers shares with Mean Girls, in which Regina George also saved her worst for her "friends.") And that makes Veronica's anger both more real and more interesting. It's one thing to want to kill your enemies; it's another to want to kill your friends.

While it's certainly thought-provoking, you can easily look at Heathers as pure whacked-out comedy, and it holds up on that level, too. The saccharine teacher who wants everyone to talk about feelings; Veronica's chipper use of the same dialogue to head off to a funeral that she earlier used to head off to a party ("Great pate, but I've gotta motor"), the great final shots of Winona Ryder, smudged and battered with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, and — of course — the baffled father who winds up shouting, over his son's coffin, the instant classic line, "I love my dead gay son!" It's funny stuff.

But they gave everything a lot of thought, too. Just one example: Heather Chandler is strongly associated with the color red to the point of heavy-handedness, but there's a point to that, I think: red and white are the school colors, too. Which means that even after she's gone, the school is awash in red — just as Veronica realizes that knocking out one Heather only means there is another to take her place. (In this case, literally another Heather.) Because it's not the one girl; it's the whole world.

Of course, the earth has very much shifted under this movie in the last 20 years. The idea that high school social life could plausibly collapse into bloody violence was a fairly distant and more comfortably satirical notion in 1988. Once discussions of school violence increased in prominence and at least some of that violence seemed to be rooted in the suffering of those who were bullied or ostracized, the context became a little different.

But it remains a fascinating exercise: violent, creepy, and funny in equal amounts. And probably more than any other entry in the Summer Of '80s Movies series so far, it's both timeless and utterly reflective of its precise moment in pop-culture history. The themes are eternal, but the outfits and the slang and the style scream, "This is 1989, and in precisely five minutes, it will all be so five minutes ago."