Absolute classics: Heathers (1989)

6th May 2005 at 01:00

Fashion advice *

School-wide grief counselling *

Mean teen *****

School can be hell at Westerberg high. The pecking order denotes who's in and who's out, who's cool and who's not.

Daniel Waters's meticulous script shows the cruelty enacted under the noses of the teachers. A titular trio form the most powerful clique in school: the girls, (pictured) all called Heather - Duke (Shannen Doherty), McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Chandler - are joined by Veronica (Winona Ryder), a would-be "Heather" who thinks the price of membership is too high.

Heather Chandler, played by the late, great Kim Walker, is superbly catty, bitching and bullying her way around school. Humiliations flow thick and fast. Geeks and jocks live in her shadow, but not new arrival Jason "JD" Dean (Christian Slater).

Not for him practical jokes to undercut the prom princess: a mug of drain cleaner proffered as a hangover cure sends her crashing through a glass coffee table. To avoid a murder rap, Veronica and JD forge a suicide note, only to find they've created a monster.

Since Chandler ruled like a monarch, feared and envied in equal measure, her "suicide" makes self-destruction look cool. The process seems complete when two football heroes die in an apparent gay suicide pact. In reality, JD and Veronica gunned them down in the woods and doctored the crime scene.

To the tune of the pop song "Teenage Suicide - Don't Do It", the teachers feel powerless to deal with the pending epidemic. By now Veronica is getting cold feet - JD is a demon.

There's a shift in gear as the film turns into a horror thriller, and the school stumbles towards carnage with a gym full of students watching cheerleaders while sitting above a ticking bomb. JD wants the explosion to be remembered as "Woodstock for the Eighties" and Veronica sets out to stop him. Any specific education-related content drains away for the finale, but the lingering lessons are clear.

Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre, forgetting to add that school peer group politics could be "hell's ninth circle". This is beautifully observed in Michael Lehmann's film where "swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads" make the other kids miserable. The dialogue sparkles and will outlast the garish 1980s fashions which festoon the film.

Heathers is a case study in how not to teach, where adults have lost the plot.

Graham Barnfield


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