This '80s black comedy, back in cinemas, is no irrelevant relic
“The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.”
That’s the credo of Christian Slater’s deranged bad boy J.D who, together with Winona Ryder’s iconic insider misfit Veronica Sawyer, goes on a Bonnie and Clyde-style killing spree in the cult classic 1988 movie Heathers. Their targets? Homophobic jock bullies and power mad popular girls, AKA the titular Heathers. And perhaps if the 1988 black comedy had ended with him blowing up Westerburg High School and a prom in heaven, as director Michael Lehmann originally intended, we’d find out if J.D. was right.
Heathers is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month with a 4K re-release in cinemas from today and a return to on-demand platforms. In September, Heathers: The Musical (yes, really) transfers to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London. Filling those cinema and theatre seats will be legions of Gen Xers who discovered it the first time round in the ’80s or ’90s. Heathers only made about $1 million at the box office but it was a bonafide VHS sleeper hit in the years that followed. Think of it like Pitch Perfect with more wit, more fucks, more blood and guts.
Heathers is the original no filter. That means it’s a strange beast. High school was fucked up then and it’s fucked up now which is why it’s so potent that the movie doesn’t shy away from (deep breath) bullying, fat shaming, bulimia, irresponsible adults, homophobia, rape culture and teen suicide. But what is this dark high school satire selling that teens in 2018 are buying?
Let’s start with what’s changed forever. In 1988, the shooting and fake suicide storylines in Heathers were shocking because it would never happen. In 2018, it’s shocking because it is happening. In fact, a TV reboot of Heathers from Paramount – which looks atrocious – was cancelled after news of a real school shooting in the US. Perhaps a true homage to Heathers made now would play out not with real murders but as character assassinations on Instagram, upending the powerful teen social currency of selfies, comments and likes. Social media is the new cafeteria.
On rewatching, some of the moments played for dark laughs do feel iffy. Take the scene where one of the Heathers is essentially being molested in a field in the background of a jaded conversation between Veronica and J.D. It’s comical but it’s worth questioning – at whose expense are we supposed to find this funny? Heathers works best when it’s laughing at the cruelty and hypocrisy of people with real power.
Some of the most outrageous satire is still relevant. Modern millennials will probably balk at the “I love my dead gay son” line of a father at one of the jocks’ funerals. On the surface, it’s a homophobic sequence – our dynamic duo get the jocks naked, shoots them and then plants mascara and gay porn mags at the scene. But pay attention and it’s clear the joke is on both the bigoted jocks and their parents who would never accept their sons were gay if they were alive.
If teens see the disaffected tone and some dated jokes and turn off from Heathers, though, they’re missing a hell of a lot. (More likely they’ve never heard of it because it’s not on Netflix.)
Daniel Waters’ script is dizzyingly sharp and every other line is quotable (“You look like hell” / “I just got back” ). It forged the path for not only Mean Girls – which isn’t half as mean – but a whole lineage of smart, female fronted high school movies like Juno, Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, Thoroughbreds and Lady Bird.
When Veronica is furiously scribbling in her diary, Heathers is here to tell you you’re not the weirdest person to ever own a brain. I see you, young Veronicas. You might not be comparing your so-called best friend to the Wicked Witch of the West but you have “gross and icky” feelings and you’re frustrated. It’s not very trendy to display as part of your online personal brand but teen angst doesn’t just disappear in a couple of decades, even if it doesn’t “have a body count”.
Veronica Sawyer isn’t the pretty, desirable princess or the intelligent, ugly duckling or the kook with a gun, she’s all of that and more. She’s torn between the societal rewards of fitting in and the sweet release of letting it all hang out. She has become the thing she hates, she’s Sammy Davis Jr giving racist Richard Nixon a bear hug, but unlike most of us, she gets out. Our heroic anti-heroine doesn’t just cut through the Heathers’ BS, she slices through J.D’s psychopathic logic too. As a Heather would say, how very.
One of the greatest gifts Heathers has to offer to 2018 audiences, though, is a healthy dose of irony and cynicism. We’re living in the age of urgent earnestness and outrage, a great deal of it faked to impress both the people around us and avatars we’ll never meet. Scenes like a funeral where we can hear the real thoughts of Heather 1’s classmates feel pretty vital right about now. So maybe we need to both recognise, with hindsight, the abusive nature of our nihilistic lovers’ relationship and allow ourselves to snigger in shock when Veronica burns her hand in self flagellation and J.D quickly uses the burn to light his cigarette. What. A. Guy.
In 2018, there aren’t two clear cut types of people, hard-done-by Veronicas and evil Heathers, it’s much, much messier than that. Online commenters on recent ‘Heathers at 30’ interviews have proclaimed both Trump and Hillary Clinton to be a Heather which tells you all you need to know. Heathers to the left of me, Heathers to the right.
At the centre of this revenge fantasy about sex, surveys and red scrunchies are the questions of who is an insider and who is an outsider and whether “different social types” can get along anywhere outside a high school prom in heaven. This is how the Heathers we have actually comes to a close. As a battered but triumphant Veronica dawdles off into the distance with bully victim Martha Dunnstock, making plans to watch videos instead of going to prom, we get our oddball, surreal, hopeful ending. Two insider outsider types who turn out not to be types after all.
Heaters 30th Anniversary is back in cinemas from August 8 and comes to digital and On Demand August 20