“I climbed the citadel’s steep height, and saw the city as from a tower. Hospital, brothel, prison, and such hells, where evil comes up softly, like a flower.”
— Charles Baudelaire
In March 1989, the hype heralding a macabre teen comedy named Heathers proved howlingly believable. What a relief. At last, a pitch-black antidote to John Hughes and his “aspirational” suburban soul poison had arrived to force drain cleaner down the throat of Ferris Bueller, blast lethal holes through the empty hearts of Duckie and Farmer Ted, and blow the fully occupied Breakfast Club detention center into pristine smithereens. Oh, the (finally recognizable as human) humanity!
It took a while, though. Unsure how to market a youth romp so atypically mean, New World Pictures cannily snuck Heathers into limited release with ads focusing on its rave reviews. As noted, all the ballyhoo was true, sans the exception of an oft-repeated claim—namely, that Heathers was an “original.”
I caught Heathers the weekend it opened and I loved it and, doing what I do, I immediately announced afterward: “That was great, but it’s really just Lord Love a Duck and Massacre at Central High smashed together!”
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, both Lord Love a Duck (1966) and Massacre at Central High (1976) routinely played midnight shows and revival houses, exuding a similarly punkish energy and righteous nihilism to savvy audiences. The former pitches happy hatred as farce, the latter as tragedy.
Back when Lord and Massacre were familiar titles, then, drawing the line to Heathers didn’t prove too hard a task. At issue now is how deep into obscurity each older film has fallen, while Heathers only seems to continuously expand in stature.
In the single plot shared by all three films, a teen queen courts the intoxicating danger of a charismatic outsider who mounts literal warfare against the ruling class on campus. Death follows. Lord Love a Duck climaxes with a heavy machinery attack on a commencement ceremony; Massacre and Heathers both culminate with a scheme to set off explosives at a crowded dance in a school gym.
Looking back, Heathers certainly brings more to the fray than just a combination of its most direct influences. Not for nothing has it endured as a vital rite-of-passage for multiple generations of adolescents who become worthwhile adults. Still, no Lord Love a Duck, no Massacre at Central High—no Heathers.
Described by writer/director George Axelrod as “Love Finds Andy Hardy meets Dr. Strangelove” and billed on its poster as “An Act of Pure Aggression,” Lord Love a Duck is a scabrous takedown of California dreaming, beach party movies, pop psychology, progressive education, commercial religion, and all manner of other petty mid-’60s piffle as filtered through that most idiotically powerful of all marketplace entities: the American teenager.
Axelrod actually aims his venom at the entire universe. Coming off the triumphs of writing The Seven Year Itch (1955), Bus Stop (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Axelrod initially seemed to let slip his misanthropy in How to Murder You Wife (1965). Really, though, we had no idea.
Narrating a promo reel, Axelrod intones, “The planet Earth is the lunatic asylum of the galaxy, and the town you live in is likely one of its violent wards!” Lord Love a Duck is an act of pure aggression, to be sure, but not one second is played at a pitch below cartoonish farce—even the sad parts, even the people-getting-killed parts. Hilarity hammers home the deep, serious (and blessed) rage.
Rodney McDowall stars as Alan Musgrave, a dangerously intelligent high school loner we first see in a jail cell. He’s impish, self-satisfied, and contemplative. He’s got a tale to tell.
Speaking into a tape recorder, Alan begins with talk of Tuesday Weld as Barbara Ann Greene, a luminous blonde social climber hampered by her parents’ divorce and her cocktail waitress mother Marie (Lola Albright) slinging booze in cuddly animal lingerie. The Mean Girls snub Barbara Ann, inspiring Alan to commit his existence to making her every desire come true. It’s a tall order, as she then desperately declares, “Everybody has to love me! Everybody!”
The first requirement to be filled is Barbara Ann obtaining a dozen cashmere sweaters so she can join the meany-boppers’ “Cashmere Sweater Club.” Alan suggests she play on the guilt of her absentee father. The result is a volcanically perverse segment that defies description. In fact, on paper, it would read, “A divorced dad takes his daughter out to eat hot dogs and try on sweaters and, together, they share hearty laughter.” The implicit taboo-shattering delirium of what actually plays out on screen, though, is really only approximated by the 1958 novelty record, “Delicious” by Jim Backus and Friend. Listen and feel the leers.
From there, Alan stops at nothing to grant Barbara Ann’s wishes. Taking on a hyper-inflated football hulk, he reveals himself to be a secret martial arts master. When Barbara Ann frets over her grades in Botany—renamed “Plant Skills for Living”—Alan unleashes her on fidgety principal Weldon Emmett (Harvey Korman,) to work the same wiles on him that got her pop to shell out for not a dozen but, in fact, 13 cashmere sweaters. Eventually, when Barbara Ann sets her sights on handsome dullard Bob Bernard (Martin West), Alan moves in to work as a houseboy for her target’s widowed mother (played to typical perfection by Ruth Gordon). Teen marriage between Barbara Ann and Bob follows, along with multiple attempts to kill the groom that grow increasingly painful up to and include the one that works.
Flaxen, buxom, and SoCal sun-kissed, Barbara Ann naturally longs, above all, for Hollywood stardom. One of Lord Love a Duck’s most uproarious side-trips is a full-bore parody of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello seaside musical romps, enacted when Alan introduces his ingénue to T. Harrison Belmont, “King of the Beach Pictures.” The schlockmeister instantly wants to cast Barbara Ann in Cold War Bikini.
Please note: during the spring break dance sequence, look out for the longhaired, black-bearded beachcomber hopping and bopping with a transistor radio who looks uncannily like Charles Manson. It’s not actually Charlie, but his mere visage is a freaky indication of Lord Love a Duck’s almost supernatural prescience.
Alan’s saga climaxes, as it should, on graduation day where, as he should, he commits mass murder. The method shall not be revealed here, nor the gloriously dismissive take on those who fall victim to it. The flowery demonscape described in the Baudelaire quote up topliterally gets mowed down. In the end, it’s all just more manure.
From death row, Alan’s summation of his last tribute to Barbara Ann speaks volumes: “If this doesn’t make you famous, nothing will.” And, oh yes, it makes her famous. Barbara Ann is last depicted as a name-above-the-title starlet in T. Harrison Belmont’s Bikini Widow.
Roddy McDowall was nearly 40 when he shot Lord Love a Duck. He utterly convinces us he’s 17 and evil and right about it.
Tuesday Weld, age 22, is like a beam of nuclear sunshine. And sex. Coming off the innovative 1959 teen sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and big-screen teasesploitation such as Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1961), Weld passed on starring in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), and stated “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.” Lord Love a Duck makes that apparent.
The pairing of McDowall and Weld pulsates at the core of Lord’s genius. It would be echoed later in two of Weld’s other best films, Pretty Poison (1968) and Play It as It Lays (1972), where she starred opposite Anthony Perkins. There’s (black) magic in that particular combination.
The physical resemblance between McDowall and Perkins is more than just passing, as is, on a deeper level, the distinct routes (and ruts) they traveled as closeted homosexuals who came to shine in Hollywood as off-kilter leading men. Their characters in Lord, Poison, and Play are powder kegs. Tuesday Weld sets them off. Fireworks or mushroom clouds ensue, depending on the point from which you view Ground Zero.
As that rarest of workable movie hybrids—high art and gut-punch exploitation—writer-director Rene Daalder’s Massacre at Central High hides its political perspectives in plain sight. Daalder, a radical Dutch artist who studied under Russ Meyer, picks up where Marxism’s promises leave the young hopeful and the experienced hurting.
Massacre at Central High directly evokes the same truths laid bare by George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the Sex Pistols’ “Holiday in the Sun,” and it does so in the form of slam-bang quasi-horror revenge-flick soaked with blood, nudity, and bad guys getting their asses bombastically beaten—smack up until the movie makes clear that we’re all bad guys… and also good guys… and also bad guys again, too.
Back in the 2000s, online belly-aching the scourge of “bullying” seemed to be the spark that ignited social media’s ongoing rewiring the world as victims fighting victims for “I Had It Worst” moral superiority.
On the one hand, proactively addressing the topic was long overdue and the world improves with every time bullying decreases. What the outrage ignored, though (and still does), is that we have ALL been bullied, and we have all BEEN bullies! (Trust no one who claims otherwise.)
Odds are, however, that few us escalated our coming-of-age terror campaigns to the heinous heights of Bruce (Ray Underwood), Craig (Steve Bond), and Paul (Damon Douglas), the “little league Gestapo” who rule the school in Massacre at Central High.
We first see the tyrannical trio strong-arming Spoony (Robert Carradine), a stoner they catch scrawling a swastika on his locker who tells them it’s act of “social protest.” They rough him up and order him to keep “their” hallways clean.
Spoony’s choice of symbols is interesting. The swastika is a shorthand call for oppression; that such a declaration at Central High angers the actual oppressors indicates Daalder is challenging us to fourth-dimensional mind-games (and it will be a pleasure to witness how he wins).
Bruce, Craig, and Paul are not just brutes, they’re wealthy, handsome jocks with who travel in a tricked-out van and indulge expensive hobbies on the order of hang-gliding. Mark (Andrew Stevens) is another popular rich kid who the bullies consider a peer, but he wants no part of their fascist browbeating of the “lesser” students.
Into this fray drops David (Derrel Maury), an intense, piercing-eyed old friend of Mark’s from a previous school. Mark vouches for David, encouraging the thugs to leave him alone. Inherently righteous David, however, quickly witnesses the wrongdoing at hand and instinctively defends the helpless against the threesome’s collective Goliath.
At first, David’s generosity entails assisting lower class, overweight Oscar in rebuilding his bomber car after the bullies maliciously destroy the vehicle with him inside it. Then David helps disabled librarian Arthur (Dennis Cort) get up from a pile of books under which the miscreants bury him. Finally, David interrupts the trio as they’re in the process of gang-raping Mary (Rainbeaux Smith) and Jane (Lani O’Grady) and—in a moment that recalls Alan’s surprise pummeling of the quarterback in Lord Love a Duck—he makes it evident he’s a ferociously skilled fighter thoroughly capable of taking on any number of challengers.
Properly sensing David as a threat to their reign, the bullies sneak-attack him in his workshop (again invoking Marx, David is most often shown at peace as a worker with his hands full of tools). The assault leaves David literally without a leg to stand on, and ignites the worst of himself in response to the worst of others.
One by one, David exacts vengeance on his perpetrators in the manner they did wrong by him: he turns the objects and activities they love (a van, a hang-glider, a swimming pool) into the weapons of their own destruction.
Liberated at last from the bullies, the students of Central High come together, only to argue about how to split apart. Oscar throws his weight around in a very real sense; Arthur decries the unworthy abilities of non-intellectuals; and free-love throuple Spoony, Mary, and Jane preach Utopia—but only if they’re put in charge.
The more things change, it’s clear, the more they stay the same—except, that is, for David’s bloodlust, which he rationalizes as a further pursuit of equality for all. The sole tempering element to his fury is Theresa (Kimberly Beck), Mark’s girlfriend. David is in love with Theresa and, at one point, sex almost occurs between them (at her behest), but David will not betray his buddy. He is a man of principle, but blind hatred distorts even that to the point of homicide.
Massacre at Central High ends with a reunion dance and, for the first time, adults appear on screen. Up to that point, we have seen no teachers, no parents, no police, no official authority figures at all. The adults at the dance, though, show up as former students. They’re not in charge either.
David decides he is the one in power after all and that, since no one can live up to his standard of integrity, no one should live at all. It’s a familiar concept practiced worldwide by despots of every political stripe.
Only what makes David vulnerable—love and self-sacrifice—offers redemption. First, it occurs when Mark and Theresa learn David’s explosive scheme, whereupon they inform him they won’t leave the building, so he’ll have to kill them, too—while they’re defiantly dancing. Ultimately, David’s feelings for Theresa move him to commit a final act of sabotage, against his own madness.
Saving one last allegorical haymaker with which to lay us out, Daalder has David’s nobility erased from the public record—thrown into “the Memory Hole” of 1984—and the act of terrorism gets pinned on fanatical idealists. The more things change…
Heathers is the most familiar of the three films at hand and, as noted, the full flowering of the demon seed planted by Lord Love a Duck and the savagery that sprouted forth as Massacre at Central High.
So here’s the thing—if you’re reading this, you already know about Heathers. Intimately. Aside from some hindsight worthy points, how about we skip the details and focus on the movie’s larger place in the culture, huh?
Okay, here’s an observation that connects our three subjects and, I hope, says something bigger. Both Alan in Lord Love a Duck and David in Massacre at Central each surprise hugely daunting menaces with hidden physical prowess and defense skills. Faced with the same peril in Heathers, their lethal lone wolf equivalent, J.D. (Christian Slater), simply whips out a handgun and blasts away.
J.D. turns out to be shooting blanks, but by the late-’80s in America, cheap and easy firepower would prove to be the great equalizer. No more building muscles or laboring over jiu-jitsu drills—now anybody could blow holes in their tormentors just by pulling a trigger. Soon enough, of course, too many would.
After dashing in and out of theaters, Heathers became landed on home video and cable and became HEATHERS!—the film the ended Teen Comedy ’80s as we knew them and set in motion a deeper societal groundswell.
Somewhere between Heathers’ opening shots of Winona Ryder buried up to her neck being pummeled by the titular harpies’ croquette balls and the parting image of her lighting a cigarette off her boyfriend’s flaming corpse and expressing kindness to the most put-upon wreck in town, Generation X emerged sneering and snarling and absolutely correct in its cynicism on every conceivable counts.
I write here of Generation X not as it is marketed now (Friends re-runs, Spielberg nostalgia, and Reality fucking Bites) but as the underground culture of which I was an active part when it got tapped by mainstream tastemakers sniffing out the next mass buying block.
All that is Memory Holed now, buried under infinitely more marketable and unit-moving crap for Millennials to moronically latch on to like boy bands and early CGI blockbusters and, again, stupid goddamned Friends.
Still, some of us remember when MTV and pop radio stations suddenly went “alt,” and freak-punk heroes like the Meat Puppets(!) and the Butthole Surfers(!!!) scored Top 10 hits and the sick-joke sex-sadist nihilism of ’zine culture scorched multiplexes by way of Pulp Fiction (1994) and There’s Something About Mary (1998) and stained primetime in the guise of South Park and Family Guy.
That up-from-the-counterculture influence on the middle of the road didn’t last past the first Spice Girls single, but its happening at all is as remarkable as the decade of Molly Ringwald capping off with Martha Dumptruck.
Then and now, Nirvana gets a lot of credit for that momentary lapse into reason for the masses, and rightly so. Still, looking back, I always think of the “almost” musical tremors that forecasted Nirvana—the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More—and then I try to conjure of their movie equivalents and, really, it’s Heathers. Just Heathers.
More specifically, it’s Lord Love a Duck (released at a time when much of Generation X was being born) into Massacre at Central High (released in the year of the Bicentennial, an indelible Gen X memory) into Heathers (released just as Generation X was finally shattering the shackles of adolescence).
Heathers inspired and invigorated because it took crazy chances and depicted monstrously ugly facts about pecking orders and cancerous peer pressure and potentially fatal fears of being cast out. Leaping forward 30 years from that point of impact, The Dumbening has done us in.
In 2018, a repeatedly delayed Heathers TV adaptation limped on to the Paramount Network sans promotion to be burned off and, once again, Memory Holed.
One issue that sank the show, reasonably enough, was sensitivity regarding real-world school violence. Louder and more damning however, was the series’ daring depiction of who the 21st century Heathers would be.
No longer did wealthy, white, pampered debutantes hold the rest of the student body in mortal terror of making a wrong move or, worse, saying a wrong word. Keeping with the times, the new Heathers hailed from previously marginalized categories and they used social media to shut down and banish anyone committing thought crimes against them. No way could any such “offensiveness” be permitted.
The Hollywood Reporter actually offered the media’s most even-handed denouncement of the series in describing its script-flipping milieu as “a dark and almost reactionary undercurrent in which the disenfranchised aren’t being bullied, but rather are wielding identity politics and political correctness as weapons”
Gosh! Imagine anybody ever doing that! Allow me to repeat: We have ALL been bullied, and we have all BEEN bullies. Some movies—and people—used to understand that.