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EMPIRE ESSAY: Heathers Review

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A girl who half-heartedly tries to be part of the "in crowd" of her school meets a rebel who teaches her a more devious way to play social politics.

★★★★

The notion of the intelligent teen comedy is, to many people, a. rather perverse contradiction in terms. Certainly even the most fervent admirer of John Hughes' movies would be hard pressed to find anything resembling a "message" behind them (and, in fact, when he tries with the infamous letter at the end of The Breakfast Club giggles of derision were a common reaction). Indeed, the "animal comedy" sub-genre spawned by Porky's and Animal House was hardly renowned for its dangerous intellectualism. But, amid the lightweight fluff and the hardcore gross-out of the golden age of the teen movies were two or three that dared to push the adolescent envelope and endeared themselves to a generation, partly because of the nostalgia that tinged anything that we watched in the slum cinemas of the early 80s, but more importantly because of their totally unique and utterly delightful capacity to genuinely appall adults. A quality that had for the most part been reserved by pop music as a territory all on its own.

Surprisingly enough it was Christian Slater who changed all that. In a shock development utterly unconnected to his bigshot casting director mother Mary Jo Slater, Christian had been "discovered" (presumably in his room) in TV soap Ryan's Hope in 1985, and in 1986 made his mainstream film debut by shedding his kecks in the service of The Name Of The Rose. By 1990 he was triumphantly essaying the role of anarchic teen DJ Happy Harry Hard On in Pump Up The Volume, a minor clarion call to American youth that not only set parents' teeth on edge by wholeheartedly advocating illegal radio stations, student protest and excessive masturbation, but seemed to have at its heart a genuine glint of teenage rebellion. Essentially, though, Happy Harry was simply a variation on the character of JD he had established in Heathers. The initials were no accident. For a brief, odd moment Slater would look like shaping up to be his generation's James Dean. Strange days, indeed.

Heathers is a teen comedy as if made by David Lynch. The surrealistic tone is set in the opening credits when we see a croquet match, shot in dizzying day-glo colours, that has a human head for its peg. It's a weirdness that permeates the film reaching its zenith in JD's bizarre relationship with his demolitions man father, who refers to his son as dad and vice versa and appears to have at some point blown up his mother.

But it's Daniel Waters' screenplay that really ratchets Heathers up into being something special. Not only did it invent the self-aware, sophisticated style of adolescent dialogue that Kevin Williamson would lift wholesale for Scream and Dawson's Creek but it had a central theme of teen suicide, usually treated with po-faced concern by anxious adults. Indeed, one of the movie's comedic highlights is Miss Fleming (Penelope Milford), a hippie dippy teacher for whom the mounting student body count is manna from heaven as she organises communal outpourings of faux grief and passes the suicide notes around class ("Are we going to be tested on this?" one teen wonders). "Before a teenager decides to kill himself, there are a few things he needs to know. After all, this is a decision that effects all of us. And there's only one chance to get it right," she solemnly pronounces.

In fact, it's this gleeful recognition of adult insincerity that gives the film its giddily vicious power. Fathers of school jocks set up to die as if they were involved in a homosexual suicide pact wail, "I love my dead gay son" over the coffin prompting JD's sour remark: "How do you think he'd react to a son that had a limp wrist with a pulse?" Principals announce that they'd "be willing to go half a day for a cheerleader" when deciding on an appropriate period of mourning for yet another apparent suicide.

While Winona is perfectly serviceable as Veronica, the engine of the film is Slater, whose patented hormonal Jack Nicholson routine (though Slater claims that the mannerisms are in fact based on his dad) elevated him briefly to the ranks of the effortlessly cool (though it's probably a part he'd be unlikely to want to reprise today, despite Lehmann's plans for a Heathers II. Post-Columbine firing guns in school cafeterias is a distinct no-no — and yes that's a trenchcoat he's wearing).

Tragically Heathers loses the courage of its nasty convictions in the last half hour of the film and begins to pull its punches. Any movie that promises an exploding school and a Jim Jones style mass suicide should really deliver, and the denouement in which only Slater blows himself up can't help but feel like a disappointment. Still, for the most part Heathers is as bitter and dangerous as a cup full of liquid Draino.

The nasty side of teen comedy - scathing and hilarious.

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