A Daniel Waters Double-Bill

Way back when I was in university (never mind which one – I don’t’ want the Alumni Donation Squad banging on my door day and night for cash), word sort of got around class that some nutty, darkly funny teen comedy was in theatres, so a small group of us attended a screening and I think most were blown away by the film’s coal black humour, and its now-politically wrong finale involving a vengeful teen, a gun, and some C4.

Some raved about Heathers, while I distinctly recall one classmate found the whole film revolting, if not godawful. The film was barely released, and I think the only venue we could find was the Carlton, which offered slightly bigger screens than the old rear-projection screens that were crammed into the now long-gone Eaton Center Cineplex (the world's first multiplex theatre); the Carlton (I think) used real projectors, but neither the picture quality nor sound nor hard plastic seats were memorable.

What’s amusing about this recollection is how our little group was part of the odd demographic that warmed up to the film and helped spread interest prior to and during its home video release. Or said differently, college and university students who knew in second year that all the angst for things thought important in high school – cliques, clothes, personal style, whatever - was basically bullshit.

Although, maybe film students were a bit different.

Some lived in res, many off-campus or at home, and maybe because of the program’s shrinking class size (due to low mark cut-offs, and some career changes after first year) there weren’t enough students to carry over any dumb cliques. Our class was also a mix of very different cultures and persuasions, and since you needed to work together on projects and rely on competent people, it made no sense to be an ass when a vital grade or passing a course was at stake.

Our class was also very funny, so it was hard to really hate anyone who was as broke, tired, hooked on caffeine, or sharing the same contempt for the film program as yourself. We did have our share of eccentrics, and I’ll stand by Urban Legends: The Final Cut as being a colourful, strangely accurate depiction of the class’ most extreme egotists. (“A crane is not a toy," quoth one.)

When the TV Production program was killed without warning, several students were bilked into taking courses they loathed to complete B.A. degree requirements, and when one friend discovered he’d been led astray into taking a lot of unnecessary courses, a strong desire to blow up the campus’ biggest and ugliest building (among many ugly-of-uglies) kind of seethed, although I asked the friend to hold off until I graduated, since I already owed OSAP a few grand in student loans.

Said friend never did follow through on the threat, but he did a lot of grumbling when I asked him to videotape the graduation ceremonies, and film me shaking the precious hand of a cultural legend. I was grateful for the favour, but I know my dear friend had the urge to at least stick a few firecrackers, sparklers or stink bombs under the doors of the film program pencil pushers, bean counters, and senile wankers (which maybe some deserved).

The above illustrates the one major shift that happens when one moves from high school to college/university: in place of cliques, one must confront bureaucracies, and while the machinations and overall nastiness of bureaucracies are, like cliques, pure bullshit, you realize after graduating that pinheads, pencil-pushers, bean counters, and wankers working the system are and will forever gum up your best intentions in life (a problem the bureaucratic-heavy Romans never managed to solve, either).

Heathers deals with one specific period – high school – but it’s an experience shared in whole or part by most people; it only takes a year or two in high school, or even in junior high school, to get a sampling of the nightmare that lies ahead. It’s universal, and that’s why the film will continue to be a known title for another generation, and maybe a few more. It’s also the anti-John Hughes film, and offers fans of teen films (specifically those from the eighties, like Pretty in Pink) an alternative to the syrupy affections and moral lessons that closed those movies.

In the 2008 interview featurette included with Anchor Bay’s new 2-disc Heathers 20th High School Reunion Edition, the filmmakers are aware Heathers was made in a time when one could satirize high school life by poking at teen suicide, shootings, and explosive teen rage, but I think one can still make equally vicious satires – just independently, and not exactly like Heathers, because its combination of a perfect script, an instinctive director, and a marvelous cast that can’t and shouldn’t be replicated.

Waters’ script raised the bar very high, and it should be something creators of future high school satires aspire to reaching, but not xeroxing.

The cast and filmmakers of Heathers managed to establish their own unique careers in the coming years, but writer Waters kind of fell off the radar after 1993, and hasn’t made many films in the intervening years. There’s Happy Campers (2001), and Sex and Death 101 (2007), the latter also released in tandem with Heathers since it’s one way Waters’ second film as writer and director won’t get lost on the rental shelves.

It’s an absurd and satirical poke at sex comedies, and halfway through the brilliant Bambi and Thumper sequence, I remembered Waters co-wrote Demotion Man, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and Hudson Hawk; not one them’s a classic, but each has a few choice streams of dialogue that are painfully funny, and bits of ridiculousness that thankfully the producers kept in the film. Sex and Death 101 is all Waters, and there’s a lot for Heathers and/or Waters fans to relish.

Next: soundtrack reviews, including Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, with a related interview on this very rare work now available on CD.

And imminent: two films by Saul Bass – Phase IV (1974) from Legend Films, and Why Man Creates (1968) from Pyramid Media.


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