In a movie just an eyelash more disturbing than Michael Lehman’s Heathers, David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly presents a machine that creates an icky human-insect hybrid after a teleportation experiment goes tragically awry. If one would have taken that same machine and attempted to send a movie of each John Hughes, John Waters, and David Lynch through space, Heathers would wind up damn near the result. And much as it is emotionally and psychologically draining to witness the crude metamorphosis of Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly from inspired man to crazed bug, the devolvement of Heathers from hyper-real high school satire to demented teen horror show is equally difficult to endure (and I mean that in the most complimentary way).
Released just before the close of the decade, Lehman’s cult classic took the opportunity to collide two young actors whose stars at the time appeared to be on separate meteoric rises.
Christian Slater had parlayed small supporting roles in cool movies like The Name of the Rose and The Legend of Billie Jean into teen heartthrob status and a leading role in 1989’s skateboard flick Gleaming the Cube (among five other roles that year including Heathers). Winona Ryder made her doe eyed, pixie haired debut in the 1986 wonderful Corey Haim film Lucas and had been nothing short of a revelation ever since.
In a subsequent essay it would be interesting to analyze Ryder and Slater’s career trajectory and explain how/why each hit a wall and how/why neither fulfilled their 1989 potential. Ryder’s inauspicious fate is the true enigma. Everything about her unique look, mannerisms, and her eclectic work in the 1980’s screamed special. From her mature and sophisticated performances even at a young age, to that lazy yet maddeningly seductive smile, to a knockout role in the mesmerizing Tim Burton fantasy Beetlejuice. Why she couldn’t keep her star bright after 1994’s Reality Bites (and wound up in a nondescript Adam Sandler movie a short time later) remains yet another bizarre Hollywood mystery. The reason, however, for Slater’s descent from “it” kid to B-list is more apparent, especially after reviewing his pretentious work in Heathers, where he brazenly and indiscriminately channels (impersonates) Jack Nicholson to the point where one could imagine a meritorious lawsuit. Slater was well sought after at the time and logically enamored with his own celebrity, but his shtick, which was sort of a hoot upon first take, was never meant to last.
In Heathers, he plays J.D., the dark loner new kid in a caste system high school where three girls, all coincidentally named Heather, represent all that is wealthy, wise, in good fashion, good taste, and generally above it all. At the time of J.D.’s arrival, the Heathers are in the process of recruiting and training a new member, her name not Heather but Veronica (Ryder). In short order, Veronica fancies J.D. and he her, and although the Heathers may not approve of the union, Veronica is sort of the anti-Heather in that she does think for herself (or at least maintains a cognitive dissonance). She still has a soul. So why would she want to be a Heather after all? Well, that is one of the movie’s many, many messages: Teenagers face an enormous amount of peer (social) pressure in high school and somewhere between the desire to be loved and independent, combined with an irrepressible survival instinct, the lines between right and wrong are invariably blurred. The victims of this dynamic are mainly those less popular. But Heathers’ intent (via a nasty, savagely sharp, and infinitely quotable script by Daniel Waters) is not to accurately reflect the average cutthroat high school. Waters’ writing, which undoubtedly influenced tart tongued screenplays from Clueless to Mean Girls to Juno as well television shows like Gossip Girl, is to take matters to a whole ‘nother level. J.D., the cynical, platitude spewing charmer, quite shockingly is revealed to be nothing more than a second generation homicidal maniac with designs to terminate the Heathers and the jocks one by one, and eventually blow up the school, all with a cocked eyebrow and a world weary grin. His motivation for promoting murder and mayhem is not as clear as Waters and Lehman may have believed. What begins as an idealistically warped mission to make the world a better place by eliminating the vicious, dangerous, and possibly evil young people in town, becomes a convoluted attempt to wake up society to hear the desperate voices of the youth of the nation. It may also simply be that his unfeeling father fucked him up in the head. Finally, there is a challenging subtext regarding suicide and how we tend to create saintly martyrs from rather unpalatable characters, provided that they die young and in interesting ways. I do wonder though whether the film would have been made in a post Columbine world (1999), but that again is for another time. In that sense, Heathers, with all its flagrant masochism and violence, is a throwback to a more innocent time, where such films could be made and still be deemed over the top fantasy.
Though Heathers succeeds on multiple levels; artistically and philosophically being just two, Lehman's filmmaking caree floundered thereafter. He admirably played lab technician, innovatively mixing the formulas of the aforementioned Hughes, Waters, and Lynch, but much like Slater and Ryder, he never quite made it. Heathers earned him a shot at the big time and 1991’s Bruce Willis caper Hudson Hawk was that opportunity. If you don’t know, Hudson Hawk, along with 1987’s Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman comedy Ishtar are films generally synonymous with big hype massive stinko flops.
Lehman was never given another real chance. The director of Heathers learned the hard way that high school and Hollywood more often than not play by the same rules.