Friday, April 5, 2013

Heathers

There's a quick shot in Danny DeVito's dark as night comedy-drama THE WAR OF THE ROSES that tells viewers, "Yes, you're watching a ruthless satire, but.....not totally heartless." Barbara and Oliver Rose are in the midst of an extraordinarily ugly divorce. They both refuse to leave their picture perfect mansion. Barbara tells Oliver, who had recently urinated on a special dinner for a group of her important clients, that the meal she just served him contains the family dog. Oliver springs up and chases his wife out of the kitchen. Cut to a shot of the dog, safe and sound outside on the lawn.

But that's not how DeVito wanted it. He was allegedly forced by the studio (and maybe test screening reactions?) to insert this shot to reassure the audience. I wonder if a particular cutaway in the black as coal 1988 film HEATHERS was created under similiar circumstances?

The scene is emblematic of the overall tone of this acidicly funny movie: double funeral for two high schoolers, star football players who are viewed side by side with their helmets on in an open casket. Mourners have been lead to believe the 2 boys were homosexuals and committed suicide in a love pact. One father, chokes tears through his eulogy..."I love my dead gay son!" The scene is played for laughs. The murderer, J.D. (Christian Slater, doing his best Jack Nicholson) sits in the congeration with his unwilling accomplice Veronica (Winona Ryder). He cracks wise during the service, making Veronica giggle. Cut to a young girl, one of the deceaseds' little sister, in the front row, who tearfully turns back to look at her. The next shot shows remorse on Veronica's face.

I can look at that choice in director Michael Lehmann's film in one of 2 ways: it is either the filmmakers revealing they have a conscience, or it is a compromise. HEATHERS concerns a high school clique of ultra-snooty girls, three of whom share the first name Heather. They are ruthless, cutting, sadistic bitches on wheels who wield their sexuality like weapons and are feared by much of the student body. Veronica is their newest member, who quickly becomes disgusted with their attitudes and cruelty. Like them, she's physically attractive and popular, but actually has a soul. Veronica is at heart just like one of the geeks. She does not win favor with the #1 Heather (Kim Walker) when she refuses to make it with a boy at a fraternity party they attend.

Enter new student J.D., the sort of guy you may remember who usually dressed in black and rebelled against every authority figure while sneering at the debutantes and jocks. He wastes no time in exacting revenge on the popular kids who terrorize the nerds, firing blanks at 2 particularly douchey Neanderthals. Veronica is dazzled by this newcomer's fearlessness. He stands up to bullies! Is he an advocate for the less cool? Or just a self-centered anarchist?

Soon, J.D.'s methods become lethal. The beautiful people start dying, including a Heather, whose death is also made to look like a suicide, complete with impassioned letter. HEATHERS then approaches another, darker level of satire, having this death inspire many other students to follow suit 'cos it's gotta be the cool thing to do.

Veronica is conflicted. Attracted to this brazen stranger but repelled by his nihilism. She meets J.D.'s dad, a demolition expert who enjoys watching, over and over, videotapes of the buildings he's destroyed. He only wishes there had been people inside. Eventually, Veronica tries to break away from her beau. Will the school blow up at the end?

HEATHERS is almost an absurdist essay on teen politics. We all knew that high school was a microcosm for life, right? The strong prey on the weak and set the standards. Daniel Waters' screenplay spares no one, portraying the adults as total boobs, especially a teacher who encourages everyone to join her for a "love-in." Veronica's parents speak entirely in cliches. In a recurring scene that is perhaps a bit too obvious and precious, she speaks the exact same dialogue with them at breakfast, each time with her saying, "Because you're an idiot, dad." The dad nods and returns to his paper.

J.W. is presented as the molotov-cocktail clutching outsider who seeks the destroy the bourgeoius status quo, but is even more narcisstic then they are. The plotline bares a strong ressemblance to a 1976 film called MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, another film which observed the terrible nature of high school social order and vigilantism. While that film was a straightfaced exploitation cheapie (albeit with things on its mind), HEATHERS is a caustic parody that makes strong (if overstated) statements on teenage life, while reveling in dark humor.

The film is a razor sharp observatory of behavior, sometimes even moral, but at the same time revels in black humor, maybe a bit too much at times? I'm thinking of the scenes wheere J.D.'s father sits and cheers while watching those videotapes. I found it silly and over the line, as if the filmmakers really wanted us to understand where J.D.'s behavior derived. Other scenes are just right, even the throwaways such as when Veronica tries to commit suicide by pressing a car cigarette lighter against her wrist. J.D. grabs her arm and...lights his cigarette off of it.

But that funeral scene? I have not read otherwise or seen any making-of documentaries, but I feel Waters and Lehmann intended it, and it gives the film a conscience, which in its grimmest moments it may seem to lack.

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