“Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count.”
Picture your typical ‘80s high school movie, and you’re likely to be thinking of Pretty in Pink, or The Breakfast Club, or any other coming-of-age story with a heartfelt message and a mostly happy ending. Enter Heathers, the dark, witty social satire of a teen movie that explores high school and social dynamics through the lens of murder and teen suicide and still stands up strong as a black comedy worth anyone’s time even 30 years after its release.
In Sherwood, Ohio, Veronica (Winona Ryder) is in with the popular clique known as the Heathers, a group of beautiful, wealthy and feared girls all with the same first name, but she’s left bored and disillusioned by their petty, bitchy, mean girl ways. By day, Veronica is mixed up with the Heathers’ cruel pranks and by night she’s questioning the true cost of popularity and dreaming about killing the biggest mean girl of the group, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). But then rebellious new student JD (Christian Slater) catches Veronica’s eye and fascinates her, and it’s not long before he charms her and draws her into his own twisted plans for the popular kids, killing them off in a series of murders staged to look like suicides.
While inevitably seeming a little dated in terms of fashion and slang, Heathers nonetheless retains its ingenuity, helped by the wonderfully original script from Daniel Waters and debut director Michael Lehmann’s astute and at times surreal direction. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater both make for very charming leads, with Ryder shining in her star turn as the conflicted 17-year-old who finds herself in way over her head and Slater infusing JD with enough allure that even his most dangerous qualities are compelling. Together, the pair make for a real tour de force as their relationship goes from something new and exciting to intense and self-destructive, starting with murderous pillow talk and ending in a deadly battle of wills and morals.Over the course of its 1 hour and 40 minutes runtime, Heathers proves itself as a clever and scathing takedown of high school social hierarchies – symbolised, iconically, with Heather Chandler’s red scrunchie – creating a unique movie that expertly balances the tone between being both blackly comic and gleefully ironic. The film’s strong cast, memorable characters and sheer intelligence have ensured that it has stood the test of time and, three decades on from its original release in 1988, Heathers has become a bonafide cult classic, spawning both a musical adaptation and a 2018 TV remake (that was later scrapped) and earning the support of each new generation of fans who come to learn of its existence.
And it’s easy to see why this film still resonates with audiences in 2018; Heathers takes all the trademarks and clichés of a high school movie and subverts them, re-packages them with sharper dialogue and more daring plot elements and presents them back to the world through stylish set pieces and bold storytelling. From clueless parents to out-of-touch teachers, through toxic relationships and revenge fantasies gone too far, everything about Heathers is heightened, and it turns the typical high school experience into something darker, made more disturbing by the violent and murderous undertones.
Of course, this isn’t a movie that could be made today in the wake of the tragic events of Columbine or Sandy Hook, and the onus of making a good, smart and engaging high school movie has fallen to Heathers’ natural successors, with the likes of Mean Girls and Easy A rising to explore high school popularity and notoriety in new genre-defying ways.
But none do it as well as this film does and, as a slice of ‘80s cinema that relishes in its over-the-top satire, Heathers remains an enjoyable, infinitely quotable and worthwhile watch.
Heathers 30th Anniversary will be re-released back in cinemas from 8 August and comes to Digital & On Demand 20 August