Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) is sick to death of the cliques and politics running rampant through her all American, well-to-do high school. Then the dark and mysterious J.D. (Slater) turns up, and diverts her away from the bitchy group of girls (all named yup
Teen movies are often assumed by the nervy authorities to be calls to rebellion; they are supposed to be dangerous, provocative and a clear and present danger to the nation's vulnerable youth. In fact, the majority of them are more conservative than a Young Republican at a prayer meeting -the most obvious example is Rebel Without A Cause.
There has, of course, been the odd exception over the years. Frank and Eleanor Perry's sadly neglected Last Summer (1969) invites a discomforted audience to look on while a group of middle-class vacationing teens (including the surprisingly excellent Richard Thomas) morph with agonising credibility into a group who rape and kill one of their number. Tim Hunter and screenwriter Neal Jimenez' River's Edge explored similarly dark territory in the '80s, while Allan Moyle's Pump Up The Volume (1990) was an agreeably raucous celebration of anarchy, pirate radio and excessive masturbation.
But if there was a popular '80s adolescent movie that genuinely did dabble with the darker elements of the teen dream while nominally staying within genre boundaries, it was Heathers. Michael Lehmann's debut is a black comedy deliberately played out in garish primary colours. It concerns Veronica (Winona Ryder), a girl bored with the petty, bitchy routines involved in belonging to Westerberg High's top clique, the Heathers (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk and Kim Walker). Enter unhinged bad boy J. D. (Christian Slater), a misfit who not only charms Veronica, but also involves her in a series of high-school murders, all masked as a suicide fad.
The key to Heathers' success is Daniel Waters' sassily self-aware screenplay. "My teenage bullshit now has a bodycount," Veronica sighs at one point, while J.D. (surely one of the coolest rebels in cinema history, even if Slater did only achieve it by accidentally resembling Jack Nicholson's nasal whine) observes, "Seven schools in seven states, and the only thing different is my locker combination." These are savvy teens who know the teen archetypes; and rejoice in murdering most of them.There's an infectious celebration of nastiness in the film. J.D. and Veronica's slaughter of a pair of jocks who are then set up so as to appear the victims of a gay suicide pact is a sadistic standout. It's as if the geeks, nerds and other misfits - who conveniently grew up to be screenwriters and movie directors - are acting out a Night Of The Long Knives that never happened at their own schools.
It's a movie that would probably be impossible to make, or at least release, post-Columbine. Yes, that is a kid in a trenchcoat firing guns in the school cafeteria. And yes, to a degree, we're on his side. While the majority of teen flicks either remove parents and adults from the picture altogether or reduce them to buffoonish stereotypes (see Paul Gleason in The Breakfast Club or Jeffrey Jones in Ferris - both inept rather than hateful), Heathers delights in dissecting the hypocrisy and cant of the characters' elders and supposed betters.
And then, after all this savoury nihilism, there is that ending. Heathers, notoriously, runs out of steam and abandons its gleeful bile about 20 minutes from the credit roll. Frankly, any movie that promises an exploding school really should deliver one, or something at least like it, if it's not to eject its young audience into the night with a vague sense of disappointment. But Heathers cops out. Still, in the end, even the extant misjudged dessert can't quite smother the exquisite bitterness of all the previous, pleasingly tart courses.
Still deliciously dark and, for the most part, courageous. The hair and clothes may have dated, but the this satire still has bite.