by Carly WilliamsNot many films combine 2-D animation, live action and claymation, but 1985’s Better Off Dead does so without apology. I never thought I would see a claymation hamburger come to life like Frankenstein’s monster and lipsync Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!,” yet here I am. This film is one of the most bizarre things to surface from the decade: an unknown cult classic that involves the typical tropes of teen angst and heartbreak. This film also brings suicidal ideation by the main character and a lack of reality that is psychotic within the scope of absurdist comedy. It’s Heathers if Heathers was made by the Monty Python crew, but it’s less murderous and more preposterous.
John Cusack stars as Lane Myers, a teenager who becomes suicidal after his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss of A Nightmare on Elm Street), dumps him because she thinks it’s in her best interest to date someone more popular. The film also stars Nickelodeon writer and producer Dan Schneider (the man who gave us Big Fat Liar, Drake & Josh and Zoey 101) as the archetypal, socially inept neighbor who is sexually aggressive to the foreign exchange student he’s hosting. Diane Franklin (known for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) plays said harassed exchange student. Additionally, Kim Darby (of the original True Grit) makes an appearance as Lane’s nervous and oblivious mother, and David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H*) plays Lane’s overbearing father.
Writer-director Savage Steve Holland based the film on experiences from his youth, including: suicidal ideation after his girlfriend dumped him in high school, creating a list of “stupid” ways to commit suicide and receiving frozen dinners as Christmas presents from his mother. Everyone has witnessed strange events at one point or another; however, Holland’s numerous abstractions of these events from his own life adds to the overall absurd nature of the film.
We see the world Lane lives in and we experience his anguish through stylized visuals, which depict various emotions, obsessions and daydreams. During an expository scene, we see his parents arguing over Lane’s relationship with Beth. His father is concerned that Lane is obsessed with Beth, to which his mother disagrees. From this, Holland cuts to Lane going into his closet, which is full of hangers that have Beth’s face on them. By this point, we’ve already seen his walls plastered with dozens of photos of her, and we’ve seen him bringing a framed 8×10 picture of her into the bathroom when he goes to take a shower. Beth, on the other hand, throws away her photo of Lane before pursuing the ski captain, Roy Stalin.
In math class, all of Lane’s classmates are enthralled by the nonsensical language the teacher is using, and for once, we see a classroom setting in an ’80s film where the students don’t look utterly bored. Students are chosen to present the projects they have prepared, and all of them (except Lane) sit eagerly with sophisticated projects displayed on their desks. In contrast, Lane only has a piece of paper with gum stuck to it as a reminder to do the project. The math teacher ends the class telling students to memorize 71 pages of textbook material for the next day, which the students are enthusiastic for. This moment of hilarity is a distorted view of the educational system from Lane’s perspective, which might seem disturbingly realistic for those with a mental illness or a learning disability.
Better Off Dead’s comedy is based on small jokes that focus on details within the mise-en-scène that come one right after the other, each time raising the stakes as they’re referenced several times throughout the film. There’s a plethora of supporting characters that have facetious dialogue and bits that are associated with every appearance they make. The only character that isn’t obscenely ridiculous is Monique, the foreign exchange student who can’t speak English. Other characters include a math teacher who is worshipped by students as if he were a cult leader (he also asks Beth out), a best friend who experiments with everyday foods to make them drug-like since he can’t get “real drugs” in their small town, extremely aggressive paperboys, a genius younger brother who builds weapons and seduces women, and a pair of Asian immigrants who have been racing Lane ever since he got his license.
There is also an exaggerated irony in the idea of Lane wanting to kill himself but being too scared to ski the K12, a mountain that only Roy has managed to survive skiing down. He has no problems with attempting to hang himself, trying to give himself carbon monoxide poisoning, jumping off a bridge or setting himself on fire, but suicidal skiing (which he happens to be skilled at) is the line he manages to draw because when he skis, he wants to live again. The comedy doesn’t necessarily come in when he tries to kill himself, but rather when he decides not to kill himself, then almost accidentally dies as a result.
When you think of cult ’80s teen dramedies, titles like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club come to mind. However, none of those reach the depths of bizarreness in the form of severe mental breakdowns and rolling punchlines that consume this film. This is the kind of movie that makes you say “what the fuck” at nearly every scene due to how ludicrous everything is that unfolds before you.