My Teen Angst Has a Body Count by Vanessa Allen
Imagine your average high school. You have your jocks, your nerds, your brutal, bully-type popular girls, and, of course, your attractive dark-haired biker kid who is more interested in murder than a healthy relationship.
Such is the setting of the 1988 film, Heathers, directed by Michael Lehmann. The main character who mistakenly “befriends” the cruel queen bee trio (all of whom are named Heather) is Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder). She is arguably the most morally sound person in the entire film. Veronica doesn’t like her “friends,” as she confesses to her dark haired psycho boyfriend-to-be, Jason Dean (Christian Slater).
Right off the bat, Veronica proves herself to be relatable in her responses to the trials and tribulations of high school drama. Through her voiced-over diary entries, the audience experiences firsthand the way Veronica sees her messed-up world, even to the extent of sympathizing with her when she wishes there was a way to eradicate the toxic and controlling Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) from her life. J.D. swoops in not long after Veronica makes this wish, and so begins the string of murders. J.D. is presented as Veronica’s hero in the beginning. Despite this, his ulterior motive of violent social cleansing at Westerburg High School creates a dramatic rift between the unlikely pair.
From the birth of Veronica and J.D.’s relationship, the movie’s tone only grows darker. The over-the-top personalities of the characters become more bizarre as the film progresses, to the extent where the only truly human character is Veronica. In a way, this sharp and somewhat jarring escalation of the surreal in this film calls back to the storytelling style of George Miller’s Mad Max (1979). Like Miller’s film, Lehmann’s follows a linear story while jumping about from one scene to another, sometimes making it difficult for the viewer to determine the difference between dream sequence and reality. In addition, the two movies share a psychological horror element with parallelisms between the psychotic biker gang and the equally deranged J.D. This particular storytelling style is especially effective when considering the context of Heathers, as it is meant to point out the very real insanity that goes on in Westerburg High, from the exaggerated perspective of an emotionally vulnerable teenage girl. The audience is forced to suffer this torturous experience alongside Veronica, essentially becoming one with her as she takes the viewer on her journey. She talks to her diary and by extension talks to the viewers. With Veronica, we experience a slew of taboo issues, such as parental neglect, suicide, alcohol, and sex. And many more.
Despite the dark, heavy mood of this high school thriller, the film finds a way to wrap itself up in a way that leaves Veronica’s worldview changed. She is shown to have been to hell and back in a literal and figurative way. In a way, the mixture of realism and surrealism in Heathers makes it difficult to pin it down to a single genre or trope; a testament to its uniqueness as a film. Is it horror, thriller, tragedy, romance, drama, or coming-of-age? It is up to the viewer to decide, and in that lies the beauty of the film. No number of words could possibly encompass the magic of Heathers, which makes it a worthwhile watch for viewers of all preferences.