I first had Heathers described to me as “Mean Girls but with a serial killer”, which sold me immediately on the concept. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the musical numbers from the stage musical adaption of the same name but I had not ever actually gotten around to seeing the original film. That is no longer the case, thanks to the good folks at In the House down at George Street cinemas.
As is customary for In the House, Ryan and Draz from The Movie Nerdz, discussed some of the film’s trivia before the screening. The tidbit that stood out for me from their pre-movie talk was the fact that the screenwriter had originally envisioned Stanley Kubrick to direct the film as in his hands it would become an unsettling and stylish piece of cinema… unfortunately that’s just going to remain a cinematic what if so I’ll instead I’ve written this review about the film that is; enjoy!
The narrative follows Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) navigating her way through high school and her dealings with the psychotic Heathers, a clique of three popular but cruel girls at the top of the high school pecking order named Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty). Veronica has found her way into the Heathers clique but after using her talent for forgery to play a trick on her childhood friend on behalf of Heather Chandler, leader of the Heathers clique, she begins to question whether high school popularity is worth it. At the same time, a new student, Jason Dean (Christian Slater), wins her infatuation by intimidating some bully jocks with a gun he smuggled into school. After falling out with Heather Chandler at a frat party who then threatens to ruin her life, Veronica is comforted by Jason who offers to kill Heather Chandler. As the story unfolds and the body count gets ever higher, we see how things quickly spiral out of control between Jason and Veronica.
The film’s script is extremely well-crafted and polished with a lot of thought behind the dialogue on the page. My biggest gripe with teenagers on film is how commonly screenwriters completely miss the mark with writing teen dialogue and teen characters who aren’t simply gratingly stupid. The film is, I would argue, largely allegorical and so it dispenses with trying to make its character sound and speak like teenagers in favour of having them be witty and incisive. It’s a script which has more to say about greater society than just the society found within the walls of a high school. The characters talk about the vacuousness of their lives and nihilism in a way that’s a bit too jaded to pass from the mouth of a teenager but you won’t care because it’s an interesting topic on it’s own to hear them talk about.
The film has a subtle surreal element to it’s presentation to give its audience some emotional distance to laugh at the action. From the opening scene, we get little details which are equal parts ridiculous and disturbing such the Heathers playing croquet with Veronica’s head as a target. Besides creating interesting stylistic choices with its cinematography, dialogue and characterisations; it’s effective in pulling the audience out of the film enough in order to be able to laugh at it. The film’s comedy is as black as sin and deals with topics like nihilism, alienation, murder and suicide which can be confronting on the face of it. The film’s absurdism, however, gives us the breathing space we need to be able to laugh at it and overlook the tragedy.
The greatest joy in Heathers is how much it revels in sadistic cruelty on par with any horror movie you might see. Certainly, the film doesn’t have as much gore or monsters or tension as a horror movie would but it engages with the same glee you might feel at watching someone get torn apart by monsters by instead having teenagers cut each other down viciously. There’s a sadistic joy in seeing how the characters lash out at each other with perfect timing and vitriol; their hostility is mutual and shared freely between everyone which defanged the pang of empathetic embarrassment I might have felt since they’re all dicks. The film gives you free license to laugh at their cruelty and it is a joy to watch.
All my praise aside, however, there are definitely elements of the script which have not aged well into the modern day. In particular, the elements dealing with homophobia are particularly tin-eared in how the film approaches it. The film does play it out as quite ridiculous but it might still be of some discomfort to audience members which are rightly sensitive to that subject matter. A saving grace of this, in this regard, is that it does play the homophobia as absurdly as the rest of its material and I ended up laughing at a bottle of mineral water. All the same, mindfulness and caution are advised for those who might need it.
The film works with a similar subtle surreal elements alongside more conventional (but not naturalistic) visual direction. Alongside the humdrum depictions of American High School life with classrooms, gyms and cafeterias; you get quite carefully crafted shots of light coming through open windows and psychedilc dream funeral. This design philosophy follows through to the costume design and the film wears it’s 80s style on its sleeves and shoulders. The characters are all dressed in way which makes them stand out but follows along the lines of what you’d expect from the various stereotypical cliques in your general high school movie. It’s a unique and eclectic mix which I find to be quite pleasant.
The music follows through in this vein of subtle surrealism in order to compliment the wider ecclectic tone of the film. There is an almost constant but subtle synthesiser tone which plays throughout most of the film’s pieces. The best way to describe it would be a like a discordant 80s techno or a very, very gentle industrial blend where synthesiser mix with clicks, flutes and drums. It’s super weird but unless you’re paying attention to it specifically, it probably won’t make that big an impression on you after the film finishes but it will unsettle you while the film is going.
Now that I’ve seen the film properly in a cinema, I can absolutely see why this film became enough of a cult hit to inspire a musical. The script is well crafted, dark and fun; although some elements haven’t aged too well into the modern day. The visuals and audio are both strange and unsettling in a pleasant way. There’s a lot that still made me laugh in this film, even three decades later and that’s no small feat to accomplish. It’s a high school movie which twists and subverts the whole genre to hold a mirror up to the world and society which produced it. It was great to watch and I recommend it to anyone who can handle the dark and problematic humour it features.
For other films which In The House is screening, feel free to check out their schedule here.
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