I once had a high school English teacher smugly inform my class that whenever a character in Great Lit appeared with the initials “J.C.” that meant he was a Christ figure. However, this code does not always hold true – in a Melville story “Billy Budd,” that we were assigned, the bad guy has those initials, thus confusing the heck out of my class when we read this. But character names do matter, sometimes more than we may realize at the time. Which is to say when I first saw the movie “Heathers,” I missed the significance of the names of Winona Ryder (Veronica Sawyer) and her original best friend (Betty Finn). However, the fictional high school is called “Westerburg,” after the singer, and the hero/antihero, played by Christian Slater, definitely does have the meaningful last name of “Dean,” as well as the initials “J.D.” which was obvious enough at my first viewing that I got it.
In “Heathers,” Winona Ryder adds yet another introspective, moody brunette teen to her resume (only in “Edward Scissorhands” can I remember her going blonde during this period), who decides to trade up and become part of the most popular chick clique which consists of three girls named Heather (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty, who proves she can do more than appear in Lifetime movies-of-the-week). Christian Slater plays the aforementioned J.D., a loner at her school who initiates Winona into the joys of murdering the popular kids than concocting grim cover-up stories. The movie opens with Veronica playing croquet, and like “Alice in Wonderland,” this is just another surreal game that we’ll see unfold before our eyes. (Did anyone actually play this in the eighties? My family had an ancient set that belonged to the people who lived in our house before us, but it was too antiquated for any of us to attempt. Not when there was Atari.)
Winona soon discovers that being popular is not all it’s cracked up to be, but still feels that the Heathers have a hold on her, particularly after she embarrasses herself at a college party, giving them fresh ammunition. (Spoiler alert) She and Christian wind up killing the head Heather (Kim Walker) and making it look like a suicide, and they progress to killing two jocks and making it look as if they were secretly lovers. This leads to a couple of black humored funeral scenes, including one in which one of the jock’s fathers gets up and sobs, “I love my dead gay son!” It also kicks off the movie parents worrying that suicide is going to become a hot new trend and making absurd interventions.
After more murder and mayhem, “Heathers,” ends in Christian’s character trying to blow up the school, though in an original ending Winona does this. Like “Mean Girls,” which came a decade later, “Heathers” ends with the protagonist learning a valuable lesson about how shaky the borders between the cool and the uncool are, but unlike that movie, the deaths aren’t fantasy. And no one gets in trouble, if you can imagine. No one makes a speech at the prom either about values – the closest we get to that is when Winona puts on the scrunchie of her dead friend and announces that there’s a new sheriff in town, which is, in my opinion, even better.
It occurred to me last week while watching a death scene in “Spy” which is played for laughs that it might just have been a tribute to the Queen Bee’s death in “Heathers.” Maybe not, but this film set a new bar for black teen comedies that subsequent similar movie either fell short of (“Jawbreaker”) or equaled (“Mean Girls”). Which is appropriate, as the (nonfiction) book “Mean Girls,” quotes “Heathers,” the one about how Winona’s “best friend” is also her “worst enemy.” For girls at that age, it can be hard to tell the difference.