It’s interesting how you can look back through decades past and find that, no matter the generation, there is always that one film that seems to epitomise the teen girls of the era. In the noughties, of course, we had Mean Girls. In the nineties it was the flawless Alicia Silverstone and friends lighting up the big screen in Clueless. And if we step back a decade further, we find 1988’s Heathers.
All three of these movies have a lot in common – they’re all set in an American high school, they all focus on the popular cliques, they all contain oh so many quotable lines… And like I said before, they all do a pretty good job of capturing the mood of the time. Whilst it remains to be seen which silver screen offering will fill this role for the “tens”, that’s not the focus of this piece. This piece is simply a brief summary of why Heathers is everything that Mean Girls and Clueless are and so much more.
Firstly, a quick synopsis – Heathers is the story of Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) and her daily life in a high school that is effectively ruled by three fabulously popular girls who all happen to be named Heather. Much like Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls, Veronica is friends with the cool kids, and, just like Mean Girls, she decides it’s time they were knocked down a peg. Unlike Mean Girls, though – and this is the crucial difference, ladies and gentlemen – she accomplishes this through a series of brutal murders, thanks in no small part to the encouragement and assistance of a new student named J.D. (played by Christian Slater). You can certainly be forgiven for thinking that that all sounds a little bit grim, as that’s a fair assumption to make – on the surface this movie seems a stark contrast to the ultimately good-natured fun of its two genre-defining successors. You’d be a fool to dismiss it for this reason alone, though, as Heathers is, at its core, a quintessentially brilliant black comedy.
Its writing is excellent from start to finish, and writer Daniel Waters certainly deserves his fair share of the credit that this film went on to receive (despite being a box office flop it became a cult classic following home media release and is now often included on many critics’ top lists). The script is peppered with brilliantly dark and irreverent lines that are delivered ever so perfectly by a very talented cast – one example (and my personal favourite quote from this movie) is below:
Veronica Sawyer: It’s just, Heather, why can’t we talk to different kinds of people?
Heather Chandler: Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, do I look like Mother Teresa?
The humour is a perfect antithesis to the brutally dark nature of the plot; what starts out as your stereotypical high school story about the importance of not picking on those less popular than you rapidly descends into a gritty and offbeat exploration into one very dangerous young man’s mental instabilities. It’s perhaps testament to Heathers’ visceral reinterpretation of the tried and tested “bitch clique” formula that a lot of viewers would find themselves rooting not for Veronica and J.D. but for the popular girls that we’re supposed to hate – I personally think that perhaps this is why it didn’t receive the acclaim it deserved the first time round.
The long and short of it, I suppose, is that Heathers is above all else a downright clever movie. There have been very few (if any) since that have so wittily and effectively deconstructed such a straightforward and oft-repeated genre. The way that it effortlessly reworks the archetypal characters that are so often stale and uninteresting in their representations elevates it above and beyond the slew of high school movies that came before and have come since. It’s one that I genuinely do feel that even viewers who aren’t big fans of this type of movie would benefit from watching as it is, to (very) simply summarise it, a shining example of the black comedy genre. At times deep and thought-provoking, at times haunting and even shocking, but most importantly funny and watchable throughout, Heathers is definitely one to sit down and watch. To quote one of the titular trio of fashion-conscious and judgemental young ladies – “Come on, it’ll be very.”
Alex Harman is a freelance writer from the United Kingdom. You can read more of his work over at http://alexjharman.wordpress.com
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8 Replies to “Heathers (1988) – Michael Lehmann (Alex Harman)”
ok I haven’t watched this, but after this review I have a feeling I will like it!
Haven’t seen this in awhile, but gosh, it was a dark one for sure. Still works well in the present-day, too, which is something you don’t usually see with teen-comedies of that day. Good review Alex.
One of my favourites of the genre; in fact, perhaps the only one I actually like! Darker, wittier, better written, and better acted, than the others you mention.
Nice review Alex, of a film that is much better than it looks on first examination.
Regards from Norfolk, Pete.
It opened in the U.S. in March of 1989. I was 23 and had just gone through a particularly rough family ordeal. It was the perfect tonic for my cynicism then, and I’ll always love it for that alone. It’s a superb dark comedy. ML
Great film. I think we need more discourse on the darkness of high school.
I’ve watched films that might be considered much darker than “Heathers” (A Clockwork Orange, for example), but I could not sit through “Heathers.” Go figure …
“I love my son. I love my dead gay son.”
(*indignant* )”Lots of people drink mineral water!”
“Yeah, but this is Ohio. If ya don’t have a brewski in your hand, you might as well be wearin’ a dress.”
I always thought that Heathers (1988) was the most accurate reflection of the aesthetic of late 1980s high school ever committed to film. With the exception of the murder/suicides, this basically was my high school. Meh. JD said it better, “Seven schools in seven states and the only thing different is my locker combination.”