Why the dark heart of teen drama will be hard to beat
A TV remake of high-school movie Heathers won't touch the original
Wednesday 19 December 2012
The news that American television channel Bravo is preparing a remake of Eighties teen movie Heathers focusing on the original characters' daughters sent shudders down my spine.
It's not just that the pitch-black teen movie was my favourite film as a teenager; the first film in which I had a crush, not only on the male lead (19-year-old Christian Slater giving us his best Jack Nicholson as anti-hero JD) but more importantly on the heroine, the self-aware and sardonic Veronica (a 16-year-old Winona Ryder, emotionally bruised, bitterly brilliant and never better). It's also that Heathers' power comes from the fact that it was a film of its time.
Watching again as Ryder progresses from accidentally-on-purpose poisoning her classmates to simply shooting them, while Slater's Holden Caulfield-style rebellion tips from firing blanks in the school cafeteria into an attempted high-school massacre, all you can think is, "How did this film ever get made?"
The answer is that in a post-Columbine and post-Newtown America, it wouldn't be. Even in 1988, the year Heathers came out, and 11 years before the shootings in Colorado, film executives were nervous enough about the original ending – in which Slater blows up Westerburg High – that they asked director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters to change it, allowing Veronica to save both the school and her tarnished soul.
Even with the gentler ending, Heathers makes for uncomfortable viewing. It's not just the scabrous dialogue – "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, do I look like Mother Teresa?" my 15-year-old friends and I would gleefully mouth to each other – it's the bone-deep cynicism, the insistence that no joke is taboo.
Thus Veronica dumps her childhood friend, murders her supposed best friend and ends the movie lighting a cigarette from her boyfriend's burning flesh before asking the most unpopular girl at school back to hers to watch videos. As the camera lingers on her weary, worn-out face, erstwhile enemy Heather Duke remarks: "You look like hell". In truth, Ryder, her face black with soot and bruises, has rarely looked more radiant.
After Heathers, teen dramas fell into two camps. Shannen Doherty, who played Heather Duke, would go on to star in the highly successful Beverly Hills, 90210, a show which rejected Heathers' nihilism, preferring to peddle a brand of sincerity that was arguably more cynical for being perfectly pitched at teenage fears.
Yet while 90210 pulled in huge viewing figures, it was Heathers that had the last laugh. Today, almost 25 years after it came out, Veronica's heirs are everywhere, from Gossip Girl's Queen Bee, Blair Waldorf, to the quartet of beauties who scheme their way through Pretty Little Liars.
Tina Fey's 2004 Mean Girls (which was directed by Daniel Waters's brother Mark and starred a young and luminous Lindsay Lohan) was described as "Heathers with a heart", while it's no coincidence that the resourceful titular heroine of teen detective drama Veronica Mars bears that name. The film's tart dialogue can also be found in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Ryan Murphy's pre-Glee hit Popular. As for Glee itself, what is McKinley High but a less brutal Westerburg, where the danger comes not from shotguns but slushies?
And while Bravo have put some thought into their idea – the new show will be written by Jenny Bicks, best known for acerbic cancer comedy The Big C – it can't hope to match the original. As JD remarks to Veronica, "The extreme always seems to make an impression." That extremism, the sense that nothing is sacred, is why Heathers compels viewers after all this time. It's also why the remake, certain to be watered down, seems similarly certain to fail.
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