Heathers archive review: a teen western filled with demons

Winona Ryder and Christian Slater confront the high school cattle barons in the classic black comedy, re-released in UK cinemas for its 30th anniversary. On its first release, Richard Combs teased out the film’s devilish design in this Monthly Film Bulletin review.

Richard Combs
Updated:

from the Jaunary 1990 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin

Christian Slater as Jason Dean and Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers

Christian Slater as Jason Dean and Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers

Spoiler alert: this review discusses the ending of the film in detail

If there’s anything which the recent high-school/adolescent angst movies have in common, it’s one particular joke: the moment when something outrageous happens in the classroom, when the problems of Life begin to intrude on this rarefied atmosphere, and one of the bespectacled types, one of the ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’, will anxiously ask, “Are we going to be tested on this?” It has recurred, at least, through the punk playfulness (or indeterminate nihilism) of River’s Edge, the liberal breast-beating of Dead Poets Society, and now the hip teen-dreaming of Heathers. It might be the kind of line that crystallises a genre, as ‘classic’ and absurd a statement of moral values as the western’s “The next time you say that – smile”. The moral values here may not be as Manichean as in a western, but perhaps the classroom division between those who think it matters to do well in school and those who only want a way out, between those looking for good grades and those looking for life lessons, could translate into small homesteaders vs. ambitious cattle barons (Elisha Cook Jnr. is the nerd who turns, going up against Jack Palance as the school bully).

Michael Lehmann’s impressive directorial debut toys lightly, jokingly, with the possibility of turning into a western: a Leone-like harmonica signals the appearances of the enigmatic Jason Dean (Christian Slater), and Veronica (Winona Ryder) announces her final triumph over the Heathers with the line, “There’s a new sheriff in town”. Beneath these throwaways, there’s a serious moral drift which it seems less that the film really intends than that it is powerless to resist: Veronica in the end scorns the temptations of power to throw in her lot with her own bespectacled friend Betty Finn (Renée Estevez) and the wheelchair-bound failed suicide Martha “Dumptruck” (Carrie Lynn). It’s the moral conflict of style over substance – the elegant but evil cool of the Heathers vs. the gauche goodheartedness of the nerds – and Heathers is happiest playing this out as a series of stylistic (or stylish) gags, with a slight air of embarrassment about its final moral clincher.

It’s hardly a question of the ending being a cop-out, as has been suggested by reports of the ending that Lehmann wanted (the school being blown up, or Veronica blowing herself up) before New World intervened. The film is not seriously a comedy about high school as a metaphor for society – its false values, its power-hungry cliques, its emotional exploitation. When J.D., with his finger on the button, expresses such a sentiment (people will say the school self-destructed “not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society”), it’s done self-mockingly, another modish gag. If this is black comedy, it’s not in the apocalyptic vein of any number of teen movies – say, from Over the Edge onwards – which have envisaged the end of society as we know it, but more like the wistfully knowing satire of George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck, whose plot (charmingly evil genie offers to make his teen queen’s dreams come true) it also resembles.

Heathers (1988)

The ending, at any rate, with Veronica’s race against time to stop her demon lover-become-mad bomber, is inevitably, rhetorically, anti-climactic. One roots neither for the school to be blown up nor for it to be saved; the school is just a given, like the ‘land’, perhaps, in a western. It has at most a cartoon reality, and appropriately, as J.D. prepares to blow himself to a better New World, Veronica nonchalantly puts a cigarette between her lips in anticipation of the blast, which leaves her completely blackened but alive (like many a cartoon cat), the cigarette not just lit but reduced to ash.

Since the ‘hero’, the Shane figure, in this genre must always be a co-ed composite, J.D. and Veronica make a more ruthless and amusing composite than most, with the justification that she is led inadvertently into murder by her psychotic alter ego balanced by the suggestion that she dreamed him up for this purpose. One weakness is that it’s never clear why Winona Ryder’s self-possessed Veronica would be seduced by the self-preening silliness of the Heathers, compared to Tuesday Weld’s empty-headed pursuit of popularity in Lord Love a Duck (since it’s Veronica who ‘calls up’ J.D., there is already a reversal here, post-feminist or New Teen style, of the relationship of dreamer and dream object).

But Veronica seems beset from the start by other demons, expressed in frantic bouts of diary scribbling. She wants high school to be ‘nice’, and the only way to achieve that turns out to be murder. If there’s a weakness of motivation in Heathers, it may be because the whole film is rather dream-like, a product of Veronica’s fevered writing and imaginings, with a consequent chaos and interchangeability of roles (both Heather Chandler and J.D. are linked to a fire and brimstone motif). Veronica’s free-floating adolescent angst is expressed in both the absurdly hard-boiled girl talk of the Heathers (“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw”; “Why are you pulling my dick?”) and the psycho machismo of J.D. James Dean allusion aside, Christian Slater seems to have been directed to play the latter as if he were Jack Nicholson, a combination of intellectual bruiser and provocative little devil. The ending may get its moral justification from Veronica plumping for homesteaders over cattle barons, but it gets its charge from the demonology genre, a quieter, wittier version of The Witches of Eastwick, perhaps, in which Veronica, having unleashed and expended her destructive (male?) energy, can now recoup it for ‘good’.

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