The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Heathers’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, I chose “Heathers.”

The info:

The Movie: “Heathers” (1988)

Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty

Director: Michael Lehmann

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) In order to get out of the snobby clique that is destroying her good-girl reputation, an intelligent teen teams up with a dark sociopath in a plot to kill the cool kids.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 95 percent.

Our take:

Froemming: Last week, Brown and I ventured into the film world of cliques and the magic pants that held a certain one together. I felt that I should perhaps follow up on that with another film about high-school friends who have formed a bond, but this time that bond is somewhat shaken when one of the group falls for a young man who hails from the wrong side of the tracks. Yes, I chose 1988’s dark comedy, “Heathers.” But before I delve into this film about friendship and the elements which may shake the foundation of that very bond, Brown, what are your first impressions of this film?

Brown: Well, this movie is “Mean Girls: 80s Edition.” And I say that because this movie is a whole lot darker than “Mean Girls” and it gets away with a lot of things that simply could not happen in a movie nowadays (ie: Taking school shootings and violence with a grain of salt). It’s a movie that, for the most part, holds up. But as I’m sure we’ll discuss, when the age shows in “Heathers,” it really shows.

So, sit down, enjoy some Corn Nuts and we’ll have Froemming get things underway.

Froemming: Yes, this is a film I do not see being made today (though I have seen rumblings of a reboot online). We are introduced to this clique, in which each girl is named Heather except Veronica (Winona Ryder), playing croquet — with the target of these lawn balls being Veronica’s head. Right from the bat, you hate just about everyone in this group.

Brown: And, you get those familiar 80s tropes regarding parents who just don’t understand and mindlessly drone on, friends who are nice to you then mock you behind your back and cliques throughout their Ohio high school. The jocks, the preppy girls, the nerds. It fits most 80s high-school tropes, except for the language.

Also, I was a toddler during the 80s… was croquet that big a thing, Froemming?

Froemming: My parents actually had a set, but I don’t remember ever playing it, so I imagine it was big at one time. I was also a kid when this came out (seven years old in 1988).

But this is almost like an anti-80s high school romp. It plays on those John Hughes movie tropes, but twists them around and shows a very ugly side of that kind of film. But in a funny way.

Brown: And the tone of the movie is such a stark contrast to the beginning where it’s very idyllic as they play croquet with “Que Sera, Sera” playing in the background. Then we get a script that was clearly written by someone who had a bad time in high school. Heather Chandler (the alpha Heather) has the model that “Life sucks losers dry” and “If you want to (redacted) with the eagles, you have to learn to fly.”

I mean, it doesn’t take away from the movie, but these characters don’t speak like high schoolers, unless Westerburg High School’s English department is top notch.

Froemming: Agreed. It certainly sounds a little odd at first, but when you realize what the movie is attempting as a whole, it works. There are so many great one-liners in this film. I mean, it is still being quoted almost 30 years after the film came out.

But to move this along a bit. Veronica is now in this Heathers group, which is basically the nightmare of anyone who ever went to high school come to life.

Brown: You can tell that Heather Chandler is the evil one because she wears a red bow. Symbolism! Also, she wears a blazer with shoulder pads so big she could play linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.

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Froemming: Yup. Also the fact she is pure evil in every scene. But that red bow does come back in the third act of this film, so it holds some meaning.

When we see the group in high school, the Heathers are doing a daily survey asking their peers questions to see how they respond. During this, they have Veronica write a love letter to Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock from one of the popular jocks. As you can tell by her name, subtlety is not this movie’s strong suit in certain parts.

Brown: I’ll argue the nickname thing to the fact high schoolers are not subtle creatures.

But as all this teasing is going on, we see our brooding boy in a trenchcoat, JD (Christian Slater). And right away, Veronica is attracted to this dark, mysterious stranger. Meanwhile, I was jealous because I have a huge real-life crush on Winona Ryder. In these JOE-DOWNs, her and Dizzy from “Starship Troopers” are in Mortal Kombat for my heart.

Froemming: Yeah, I have had a crush on Ryder since I was little and saw “Beetlejuice.” And when the Martha joke goes off (everyone laughing at this poor girl when she confronts the jock with the letter) JD gives Veronica a look of confusion and disgust, which seems to shake her a bit. And when the Heathers approach JD with their survey, he gives the greatest answer to them: “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.” Right off the bat, I really like JD — until he starts getting all homicidal.

Brown: Yes, soon after this JD points a gun at two of the jocks and shoots at them (he had blanks). And this is where the dissolution begins as a child of the 90s. They joke about how JD would get suspended for POINTING AND SHOOTING A GUN AT FELLOW STUDENTS and they laugh it off. JD would be expelled and in jail, just for starters. Heck, in kindergarten, I had a friend get in big trouble for bringing a Ghostbusters proton pack to school. This was in 1992.

But why worry about violence at school when there’s a college party to go to for Veronica and Heather Chandler?

Froemming: It falls into the over-the-top ridiculousness this movie pushes. At the time, school shootings were not as — and it is really messed up to say this — commonplace as they are today. So in a way, that scene is way more shocking today than it was in 1988, when things like that were almost unheard of.

Brown: Well, we find out more about JD’s backstory, as he moves around a lot (with a convenience store being his only sanity) and has a motorcycle because he’s a bad boy. His name is Jason Dean, after all, so why not take a little bit from James Dean?

Veronica and Heather go to a college party, Veronica hates everything and everyone, and she draws Heather’s ire for ruining her good time. While Veronica is fuming, JD breaks and enters her house because 80s kids didn’t believe in doorbells unless you were a dweeb like Steve Urkel.

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Froemming: That party scene at the college was messed up. And it has one scene where I actually felt bad for Heather Chandler, when she forced into a sexual encounter, and the look of horror on her face when it is over spoke volumes. She then takes her anger from that on Veronica, who promptly pukes on her shoes.

Brown: I do like that they gave an ultimately unlikable character some sympathy. But that’s short-lived as Veronica and JD — Who again, broke and entered into her house — have a game of strip croquet before discussing their hatred of Heather. The next morning, they decide to get even with Heather by making her a hangover concoction. Veronica wants to mix milk and orange juice. JD has … other ideas.

Froemming: This scene was so confusing that I actually got a hold of Brown to make sure I wasn’t off. When they are at Heather Chandler’s place, Veronica wants to make her sick as revenge, and JD basically wants to murder her. When Veronica thinks they agreed to the milk and orange juice prank, JD puts drain cleaner in the drink.

Now, Heather drinks it after a kind of stupid back-and-forth with JD, but what baffled me was that Veronica knew it was poison. That goes against what we saw leading up to this moment. We were lead to believe JD did this behind her back. It was like two different versions of this scene were accidentally spliced together.

Brown: As you were writing this, I watched the scene back and they clearly messed up in editing. When Veronica goes up to Heather’s room, JD has a cup with the milk/OJ mixture (which has an orange glow coming off the cup despite the liquid being off-white). But when JD gives Heather the cup, there’s clearly something blue in the cup.

But hey, why worry about the cup now? Heather croaks and crashes into a glass coffee table (why that’s in a bedroom I have no idea) and now JD and Veronica unleash their inner Bonnie and Clyde by being partners in crime, forging a suicide note.

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Froemming: Yes, Veronica is a master at forging handwriting, which is an ability I don’t think will be helpful after high school. And they stage Heather’s death as a suicide, but to Veronica’s surprise, this ruse only makes Heather more popular and sympathetic in the eyes of her fellow classmates.

Brown: I love that dynamic because at the risk of sounding like a cynic, it’s a very true thing where people are deified because of death. We see it in pop culture all the time (controversial statement: see Cobain, Kurt).

Froemming: I just want to point out that at the funeral, Father Ripper (Glenn Shadix) is the same actor who played Ryder’s uncle in “Beetlejuice.”

Brown: And, he was in Taco Bell during “Demolition Man”! He benefitted greatly from the Franchise Wars.

Froemming: After the funeral, Veronica and Heather McNamara hang out with the two homophobic jocks, Ram and Kurt. These two get so drunk that one passes out and the other becomes creepily violent when he is having sex with Heather when they are out cow tipping. JD pops up again to get Veronica out of the situation. But a rumor is built that night about Veronica, a very unflattering rumor.

Brown: And because JD is a psychopath, the answer to this is … more murder. So they plan another suicide coup and plant a bunch of evidence, including a Joan Crawford postcard and mineral water (because in 80s Ohio, drinking mineral water instead of beer means you’re gay… 80s!). JD convinces Veronica that the bullets are fake. They are not. And now, they have more blood on their hands and we get one of the most memorable lines of the movie at the funeral.

Froemming: Again, I don’t think this is a film that could be made in this day and age. But I will say they do tackle some pretty taboo topics of the time very well, which is why I think this film is just as good today as when it came out. I just want to add this quote from JD after they murder Kurt and Ram: “Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes.” This is a very, very dark comedy. And on another level, that is how JD sees the people around him: Just as superficially as the Heathers view the people around them.

Brown: Oh, I agree. It’s frighteningly ahead of its time with issues of bullying, teen suicide and homophobia. Imagine this movie taking place with the onset of social media. And it’s so screwed up that nearly 30 years later, all these things are still real issues.

Going back to the movie, we see JD and Veronica break up after Kurt and Ram are murdered. And as a way to draw Veronica back in, JD blackmails Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) into becoming the new Heather Chandler, unless she wants to be exposed as an old friend of Martha.

Here’s the question I posit to you, Froemming: What did you think of Christian Slater in this role?

Froemming: I loved Slater in this role. If there was ever a role he was born to play, it is JD. It is one of the few times I wasn’t annoyed with his constant Jack Nicholson imitation.

Brown: Yeah, I got to my wit’s end with Slater acting like Nicholson so much that all I could think about was this clip from “The Critic.”

But I will say he plays that angst-ridden teen role very well. And to play more off the Nicholson comparison, if Batman and Joker are two sides of the same coin, JD and the Heathers are the same way. They both toy with people’s emotions and insecurities, they don’t seem to care about anything other than their own selfish desires and they both are troubles. All the Heathers have their own crosses to bear while JD is saddled with a lunatic dad who has never given him any stability.

Froemming: What did you think of JD and his dad? I thought it added to the creepiness of JD that he and his father reverse the father and son roles when the speak to one another.

Brown: I’ll make this short because we need to get to the third act, but the dynamic was interesting. His dad has no conscious and JD made it sound as though the only person he cared about was his mom. And she’s dead (see: murdered) because she was in a building his dad demolished. His childhood and rational thought were also demolished in that action.

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Froemming: Speaking about demolishing buildings, JD has a plan for the high school. He tricks Heather Duke into getting signatures for a big concert from the student body. JD at this point has gone full-blown sociopath (he even sneaks into Veronica’s room to kill her, only to find she has hung herself, which was a trick on him). The signatures were not for a petition to get a band, but to sign off on a mass suicide note, because he plans on blowing up the whole damn high school. Also, any sympathy I had for Heather Duke earlier in the film is gone at this point.

Brown: Yep, the Heathers are like a hydra… you chop off the head, more emerge from the wound. And while Heather Chandler was terrible, she never drove anyone to trying to take a bunch of sleeping pills like Heather Duke did. And Heather Duke is wearing Heather Chandler’s red bow while doing this. Really, was there anyone better for this supporting role than Shannen Doherty?

Froemming: Like you told me as we were IMing as I watched this, “Heathers” saw into the future and knew what kind of person Doherty is.

Brown: JD is still the worst and his ultimate plan of killing the entire school is close to happening as he plants dynamite around the gym and the boiler room. But here comes Veronica to save the day. JD doesn’t think she’ll stop him. Hey dummy, she’s a murderer. I think she’ll find a way to stop you.

Froemming: How many times does she shoot him? I felt like he should have died a couple of times, but like Rasputin, he keeps coming back.

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Brown: Maybe Veronica’s aim would have been better if she had her stupid monocle on… A quick aside: Every time we see Veronica write in her diary, she has to wear a monocle, to the point I wrote in my notes FIVE times: “Hey Winona, stop with the (redacted) monocle.” At times, this movie suffers from the same problem “Juno” did: It tries to use quirkiness as character development. That’s not character development. That’s weak writing.

Froemming: The monocle didn’t bother me as much as it obviously bothered you. I was more distracted by the big hair and shoulder pads that were the fashion of the time.

Brown: In the closing scenes, we see JD blow himself up outside the school as Veronica looks on, cigarette in mouth. How she’s not covered in JD’s viscera is beyond me, but the threat has been neutralized and Veronica takes the red bow and proclaims there’s a new sheriff in town. Looking to finally kill the Heather hydra, Veronica invites Martha to hang out with her on prom night, setting in motion a new cycle. And we just gloss over the fact that Veronica, again, IS A MURDERER.

Froemming: Well, she learned her lesson didn’t she? Murder is bad. I say we grab our mineral water and head over to recommendations.

Would You Recommend?:

Froemming: I love this movie. It takes on issues we are still dealing with today in an incredibly dark, twisted and funny way. I am a fan of dark humor and satire like this, so this film is a perfect fit for me. But if you are easily offended, this is not a film for you.

Brown: The messed-up current state of the world makes this movie a little uncomfortable at times to watch, but this is a good watch that I would recommend. Ryder and Slater are great as leads, and the supporting cast with the Heathers adds to this twisted narrative. And like I said previously, this movie did age well. Do what I did: Watch this movie then lament over the fact that these are issues that still plague teenages. This is the R-rated version of “Mean Girls.”

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: