So Very: The 80s Movies That Led to Heathers

To understand the world of the 1980s and the Heathers, here's a course of study for those who weren't born yet and those who can't remember. Just watch these movies and you'll understand everything.

The 80s gave us an explosion of teen movies like we hadn't seen since the 1950s, and the form peaked in 1985, right before Veronica, Martha, JD, and the gang started at Westerberg High (and right before I graduated college). This post is about my journey back through all those movies again. No wonder these kids are so fucked up. In all these films, the adult world is not to be trusted and/or it's even more fucked up than the teen world. So many of these teenage characters are really damaged. It was a new era for teen comedies, and it's no surprise that era ended with incredibly subversive and original movies like Heathers (1989) and John Waters' Cry-Baby (1990).

I wanted to watch these movies again, partly just to put myself back in that era again, the language, the clothes, the pop culture, but also partly to look at the cultural influences on these characters in our show.

Many of these movies, particularly in 1985 and later, function in an essentially adult-free world, where adults and authority figures are largely absent or oblivious. This adult-free world is much like Shakespeare's woods, a place free of rules, responsibilities, expectations, constraints – but also free of safety nets and order. These were films about teens learning to control themselves – usually sexually – very much in the vein of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

It's interesting how many 80s movies centered on a high school guy who's oblivious to the fact that his female best friend is actually in love with him. I assume it was intentional, but it was almost like all these screenwriters were describing the 80s in macro. After the sexual liberation of the 1960s, and the Women's Lib movement of the 70s (including the ultimately failed Equal Rights Amendment, one of the more surprising fatalities of the Reagan era), the re-conservatizing of America in the 80s made many women feel like they had moved backward, like they were those dismissed female sidekicks in Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Teen Wolf, St, Elmo's Fire, and so many others.

Also, the 80s reinvented the horror film, with several movies that deconstructed and reimagined classic horror forms for these new, more cynical times. Fright Night, The Lost Boys, and Once Bitten reinvented the vampire; Teen Wolf reinvented the wolfman; Weird Science reinvented Frankenstein's monster (you might argue that RoboCop did as well); and the continuing Nightmare on Elm Street series was updating and complicating the more recent slasher genre. Horror movies always proliferate in times of great national distress. There were five editions of the Elm Street franchise from 1984-89 (the fifth released just weeks before Veronica and friends started senior year), channeling the complex American zeitgeist, a culture now more skeptical than ever of public institutions and authority figures, with Americans feeling less safe than they had in decades.

The teen movie genre was invented in the 1950s, for drive-in audiences, after the drive-ins' family audience was lost to television. But it largely died out, until its rebirth in the 1980s. In the 50s, teen movies were about sex, drugs (usually alcohol), rock & roll, guns, and gangs – every conceivable rebellion. In the 80s, teen movies were about sex. Or sometimes sex and horror. Just say no! In 50s teen movies, the parents are absent because the kids are at their favorite hangout, or roaming the streets in teen gangs; in 80s teen movies, the parents are absent because both parents work, or because the parents are divorced, mirroring a new socio-economic reality for most families.

After the wildness of 1970s sexuality cooled down in mainstream adult cinema, teen movies took over the sex. The decade began with movies pretty much exclusively about having sex for the first time. Later, after a few years, teen movies began to explore all the struggles of growing up, often following the Hero Myth template.

First, here are some films our characters may well have seen in middle school – most of them are R-rated (interesting that so many movies about teens are not made for teens! or are they?), but that never stopped my friends and me, so...

Porky's (1981) – The central point of this movie is that for teenagers, nothing matters more than sex, not other people's feelings, not other people's property, not authority, not the future, not disease, nothing but getting laid. Women are only challenges to overcome, not people, not potential romantic partners, just body parts. Like many sex comedies of the 80s, here sex is scary, ugly, even dangerous, paralleling the burgeoning the AIDS epidemic.

The Last American Virgin (1982) – This is a celebration of the awkwardness of sex, in a story that sort follows the same plot as The Apartment and Promises, Promises, translated from corporate America to high school. Here, the Sexual Revolution was over. Sex wasn't fun anymore; now it was scary. Now sex has consequences. You might call this movie a serious sex comedy. One of the film's most interesting aspects is its soundtrack, including twenty-three Top 40 hits of the moment, which are integrated into the narrative so organically, it often seems the songs were written for those moments in this movie. The lyrics describe the emotions of the story with pinpoint accuracy, and it really enhances the storytelling.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – This was a serious, true story, but told in the form of a sex comedy, a cautionary tale about the consequences of sex. And I have to point out that I graduated high school in '82, and this is an incredibly authentic cultural snapshot of that moment. While there were a few teen dramas in the 80s (Endless Love, The Outsiders, All the Right Moves, The Karate Kid, Footloose), most of the teen movies at the time were about getting laid for the first time. As IMDB describes My Tutor (1983), "A rich father hires a tutor for his son. The son is a horny teenager and the tutor is a gorgeous blonde. Complications ensue."

There were several films in that vein, including Losin' It, Valley Girl, Class, Risky Business, Private School, and others. Though these are all great movies, the best of these was Sixteen Candles, the great John Hughes' take on the horrors of adolescence, dialed them up to the level of absurdity.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – This was the first merger of the teen movie with the slasher movie, which up till now had been was usually about college kids, now with a more sidelined sexuality. Elm Street is the perfect story for the Reagan Era, nothing but unrelenting, primal fear. But this time, there is blame to be assigned, and these kids are being punished for their parents' crimes. These parents fear the wrong monsters -- it's disconnection, apathy, and fear that are the monsters to be slain in this story.

This new teen film era peaked in 1985, the year before our Heathers characters entered high school. What would these movie teach them about teenage life and culture?

The Breakfast Club (Feb. 1985) – This film explores all the same themes as Heathers, but while Breakfast Club looks at these themes in micro, Heathers looks at those same themes in macro. And as in Heathers, here, each kid has to learn empathy, another theme that weaves throughout the 80s

Back to the Future (July 1985) – Let's be honest, this isn't really a teen movie, even though a teenager is the protagonist. It is instead (maybe unintentionally) one big primary-colored allegory for Ronald Reagan's political philosophy. Marty McFly can only "fix" the 1980s by going back to the 1950s; though not the real 50s, but a 50s without oppression, inequality, self-sedating housewives, or racial Others (except as entertainers, of course). Only by traveling through this mythical, rose-colored American past can Marty (as a stand-in for all of us) find stability, happiness, and traditional family values in the present. Though this isn't a movie with absent adults, still Marty the teenager is the only one who can save his helpless parents, though admittedly with the help of his Wise Wizard figure, Doc Brown.

Fright Night (Aug. 1985) – This movie takes the common teen movie theme of a ineffectual, weak, oblivious adult world, always missing what's really going on, and takes that theme to its logical extreme, raising that obliviousness to a matter of life and death (as Heathers would a few years later). And again, even though Charlie the teenager has to go to battle with a vampire, he has the help of a Wise Wizard figure in the late-night horror actor Peter Vincent.

Weird Science (Aug. 1985) -- This is one of the weirder movies of the decade a wild, teen sexual fantasy mashup of Frankenstein, Cinderella, Risky Business, Smokey and the Bandit, and more. A sexual hero myth.

Real Genius (Aug, 1985) – Here's another teen movie about anarchy with no adult control. In the case of this indie flick, the story is a wholesale rejection of everything about the 80s -- the Cold War, the military-industrial complex, institutions (both formal education and religion are roundly mocked), and most of all, conformity. In this story, the adult morality of the mid-80s is truly fucked up, an extension of the US's aggressive (some would say swaggering) foreign policy under Reagan. Note that the bad guy here, representing authority, is the same guy who played "Dickless" from the EPA in Ghostbusters (1984). The "real genius," the story tells us, is in how to live a good life, to find your path, your "Real," as Passing Strange would put it. Real genius is not in academic genius; it's in family, community, fun, adventure, living out loud. Each of the three "geniuses" in the movie have to come to that understanding themselves. The very opposite of 80s culture and the Heathers.

Better Off Dead... (Aug, 1985) – Here's a comic social-sexual nightmare, and though it's fun, it's really just a lesser knockoff of the much better Sixteen Candles from the year before, with some Breaking Away (1979) thrown in. This movie is part standard form teen sex comedy, but part wacky John Hughes-style absurdism, but these two competing styles don't coexist very easily. Without Hughes' gift for truthful, insightful detail, and without the brilliant acting tightrope Hughes' actors always traveled -- both heightened and honest, just like the New Line style -- the absurdism mostly falls flat.

Teen Wolf (Aug, 1985) – Not one of the great teen films. The original I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a serious psychological thriller, in which lycanthropy stands in for this troubled teenager becoming a man without anyone to adequately guide him. Teen Wolf turned this classic science fiction film into a lightweight teen sex comedy. But in this 80s retelling, Michael J. Fox's character Scott gains mainstream acceptance by exploiting himself and his oddity. He creates his own sideshow cage. He makes entirely selfish choices, and the kids only accept him because they get something out of it -- a winning basketball team. Scott stops being a team player, and he forgets about community. How very Reagan Era.  On the upside, it's when Scott embraces 1960s authenticity and communalism, and rejects 80s individualism, that he can have a happy ending and peacefully integrate all the parts of himself.  I Was a Teenage Werewolf is about a troubled guy finding his way, while Teen Wolf is about a decent guy losing his way. Now that I think about it, maybe Teen Wolf is a lightweight companion to Wall Street (1987).

Of course, 1985 was an awesome year for film in general, also including Witness, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Lost in America, Desperately Seeking Susan, Silverado, Day of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Agnes of God, After Hours, Jagged Edge, Re-Animator, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Color Purple, Out of Africa, Enemy Mine, I could keep going...  What was it about 1985? Broadway pretty much sucked that year...

The era continued but never again with that kind of intensity, as our heroes struggled through their time at Westerberg High.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (June 1986) – One of the great comedy films of our time. And what a twisted, crooked view of high school this movie must've given our Heathers heroes, a world with absent or ineffectual adults, and complete anarchy.

Veronica, Ram, Kurt, Martha, and the Heathers all start high school...

And the first film after they start school is David Lynch's wild, weird, surreal take on teen comedies, Blue Velvet. I wonder if anyone in our story would have been a David Lynch fan...

Can't Buy Me Love (1987) – Here's another metaphor for the 80s -- Ronald (note the name) craves popularity, believing that will bring him happiness. And he approaches his problem the Reagan way -- with money. But that backfires on him, and ultimately, he learns the only true path is the liberal path of authenticity (the 60s!) and empathy. When Donald stops being selfish and puts others first, the exact opposite of the "Greed is Good" 80s ethos -- when he find again his empathy, then he can find his Happy Ending and resolve his story. It's a surprising sort of teen morality tale for the 80s, though a much sunnier one than would come two years later, with Heathers.

The Lost Boys (1987) – With its darkly ironic title from Peter Pan (they never grow up because they're vampires!), this is another story about misfits, about fitting in, about absent parents, a world in which only the kids are capable of solving their problem. Michael goes from outsider (newcomer) to (vampire) insider, and like other teen horror flicks, the monster/monstrosity is a stand-in for puberty and sexuality. Like the original I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Lost Boys takes the metaphor seriously.

It's also a Faust story, just like Heathers.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (Feb. 1989) – This surprisingly smart little comedy is perhaps an accidental argument for respecting and nurturing differences in learning abilities and processes. It's a comic fable that illustrates Howard Gardner's theories in his landmark 1983 book Frames of Mind, about the "seven intelligences" people have, and the idea that everyone learns differently. Ultimately, we see that Bill and Ted aren't stupid; it's just that no one's ever taken the time to figure out how these two oddballs learn. In keeping with the 80s, there are nothing but absent, nasty, and ineffectual adults everywhere we turn, except for Rufus, their Wise Wizard.

Heathers was released in March 1989, a year that also saw Say Anything and the very serious Dead Poets' Society.

As this decade wound down, the great John Waters capped it all off in 1990 (the actual final year of the 80s and of Veronica's high school career) with the most subversive teen movie of them all, Cry-Baby, in which the "Bad Kids" are clearly the Good Guys, and the "Good Kids" are clearly assholes. Robert Zemeckis also wrapped up his Back to the Future trilogy that year, and writer-director Allan Moyle made the definitive final statement on the era, with Pump Up the Volume, starring Heathers' Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis, a Winona Ryder doppelganger. Pump Up the Volume showed us what might have happened to Heathers' J.D. if he had found a healthier way to channel his rage. And it foresaw, years before "social media" emerged, the way that American youth would soon take power with advances in technology.

They say there's a Pump Up the Volume stage musical coming...

But other than those three films, the teen movie essentially went into hibernation again, disappearing almost as quickly as they had been reborn ten years earlier. Sure, they kept making movies with teen characters (mostly horror and heavy drama), but the "teen comedy" was largely over for a while. (Wikipedia has a lengthy list of teen movies in the 1990s, but the list includes movies like Titanic, Basketball Diaries, and American Beauty, not what I'd call "teen movies.") It wasn't until 1999 that American Pie was released and started another round.

It's been very helpful to me as director (and our unofficial dramaturg) to re-explore that time in our national and cultural history. This show is an incredibly smart, serious piece of theatre, despite its many laughs, and it offer fascinating insights into our national character – today as much as thirty years ago.

We have moved into our new theatre and we open the show in a week. It's in great shape. Nothing but the most subtle fine-tuning now.

I can't wait to share this with an audience!

Long Live the Musical!