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It Came From the Cultosphere: High School’s Darkest Comedy ‘Heathers’

It’s hard to believe ‘Heathers’ arrived in theaters a quarter century ago — and not just because its high school setting makes it seem much perpetually teen-aged. No, it’s mostly because the savage satire manages to be both extremely dated (that hair! those outfits!) and daringly ahead of its time.

Originally released in 1989, ‘Heathers’ inspired several teen movies that followed, including ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Clueless,’ but none of those films (in fact, virtually no other film ever made) had the balls to go for the jugular with such grim subject matter and bitter, brutal jokes. See, ‘Heathers’ isn’t just another movie about how high school sucks, or how kids can be mean. In its dark little heart, it’s really about how cool death can be and how society will treat any teen problem, no matter how serious, as the latest, hippest fad.

The film focuses on Veronica (Winona Ryder, in the role that made her the sweetheart of Generation X), a smart, snarky high school junior hanging out with three girls named Heather who rule the school using brains, beauty and more than a little bitchery. When a cool-as-hell rebel named J.D. (Christian Slater) arrives at Westerberg High, he turns the tables on the sadistic jocks and worms his way into Veronica’s heart. Then, when a hangover cure for the Head Heather proves fatal, J.D. and Veronica fake a suicide note and the whole student body jumps on the bandwagon.

That short synopsis alone shows why ‘Heathers’ could never get made today, and I didn’t even mention that J.D. wears a black trench coat, a father who says “I love my dead gay son” or memorable jokes that involve date rape, bulimia and, ahem, gentle sex with chainsaws. The film caused controversy back when it was released, but the mere idea of a movie like ‘Heathers’ in our post-Columbine, post-9/11 world is unthinkable. So let’s all be thankful then that ‘Heathers’ has had plenty of time to move from the category of “controversial” to “cult classic.”

The secret to ‘Heathers’ is that deep under its cynical surface beats a caring, considerate heart. Writer Daniel Waters genuinely feels for these kids who seems trapped – by fate, by society and by their peers – in roles they never wanted, and he uses Veronica as an example of a student who can see the bars of the cage and decides to break them – or blast her way through them. There’s a tiny but telling moment during the funeral for two monstrous football players when Veronica stops joking around with J.D. and looks back to see the crying little sister of one of the dead jocks. Life has value, ‘Heathers’ reminds us in the midst of all the cool-as-hell carnage. Even the life of someone you can’t stand.

In the end, J.D. goes full-blown psycho and tries to kill Veronica, then tries to blow up the school. He fails, of course (even in a pre-Columbine world, a movie studio wouldn’t let a film end with the mass murder of hundreds of high schoolers), but somehow ‘Heathers’ retains its cynical charm right up to the end. Veronica has taken control of the school, and though it seems her reign will be a bit more benevolent (she’s last seen walking into the sunset with the most picked-upon student), she’s still covered in ash and smoking a cigarette that was lit by the blast that killed her ex-boyfriend.

But at least she’s still alive. Some days, when you’re stuck in high school hell, that’s pretty much the best you can hope for.

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