“Are we going to prom, or to hell?”
When Heathers was released in 1988, it was largely unappreciated by commercial audiences. Missing its budget of $3 million by a long way (it made only $1.1m at the box office) despite frothing critic reviews, the film saw a massive turnaround in VHS rentals – a trend that continued when DVD rose to primacy. Now, Heathers is a go-to quote cornucopia for film buffs and nostalgic ’80s enthusiasts alike, not just because it boasts Winona Ryder and Christian Slater at the height of their heartthrob capital.
Initial underperformance, staggered popularity, pre-Juno teen-speak affectations: all of these facts, along with a little late-’80s magic, converge to make Heathers a true cult classic. What is it about this shocking, dark high school flick — so dark, in fact, that It-Actress of the day Heather Graham was forbidden by her mother from accepting a role — that has embedded it so deeply in pop culture, bands have named themselves after its characters?(1) Oh, let’s go back to the start.
The big-haired, shoulder-pad’n’plaid protagonist of Heathers is Veronica Sawyer (Dreamy Winona Ryder), your seemingly standard deeper-than-thou teenager. She uses big words in her diary, she wears a monocle for no particular reason and she hates her ‘friends’. When we meet Veronica she has the air of having suddenly woken up to find herself accidentally in league with the cruel, popular clique to which she belongs: three girls all inexplicably named Heather.
Clearly disillusioned with her status alongside “Swatch dogs and Diet Coke-heads”, Veronica is drawn to the new Bad Boy™ J.D.(2) (Super Dreamy Christian Slater), who impresses her by pulling a gun during lunch and scaring some jocks to the point of urination (romantic!). What unfolds from thereon is a wild and murderous rampage of dates-cum-homicides, peppered throughout with Veronica’s increasingly unhinged diary entries. “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit now has a body count.”
The film balances on a razor’s edge between dark comedy and just plain dark, proffering subject matter like viral suicidal ideation, homophobia, bulimia and voyeuristic grief through brazen black humour with no attempt at sensitivity. Vaguely accusatory in its stylistic choices, Heathers leaves the audience to sort through the problems at hand rather than afford them any real depth. The societal issues are simply pushed, as if through the screen and onto your conscience, in a serious bid to make the viewer at least more uncomfortable than the adults in the film, who skate over suicide as the next marketable teen fad.
Teenagers, Veronica’s mother soberly tells her, only complain about being “treated like people” when the adults around them are already treating them thus – fittingly, the adolescents in Heathers, suffering adult consequences for schoolyard crimes, don’t seem to know where on that spectrum they figure. One of the film’s most disturbing and enthralling assets is its two leads’ ability to teeter on the dangerous precipice between childishness and adulthood (having just murdered two classmates, Veronica and J.D. argue about a very grown-up problem in the format of a child’s classic did-not-did-too tantrum), and as more of their peers topple off the edge, the distinction between the two becomes increasingly blurred. Veronica see-saws between aghast horror at her part in the serial killings and an inability to say no to her Ripper of a boyfriend – and while she spends an appropriate amount of time exuding nauseous guilt as each body cools, there lingers in the air around her the unnerving sense that she knew exactly what she was doing.
Bizarrely, the homicidal ride-along on which Veronica finds herself (inadvertently or not) ultimately serves as a kind of atonement. Having – as one must in the sphere of high school politics – forsaken her True Friends in order to gain entry into the ranks of the feared and revered Heathers, Veronica oozes survivor’s guilt even before any deaths occur. For this reason and because the power of Winona is just that great, Veronica escapes the film (and hell – “I just got back”) as its hero, the murderess with a heart of gold, covered in charred human remains as she befriends the lonely. How very.
Heathers cutesies its way through the unspeakable and has little remorse. Satire, it has been noted, punches up; it is thus of some comfort in the uneasy aftermath of laughed-off deaths that the rich, heartless and powerful are (for the most part) the ultimate victims of this film’s scattered (3) philosophy.
This black romantic comedy is anything but black-and-white in its characterisation, which is perhaps what has it intriguing and impassioning audiences three decades after the symbolic scrunchie fell out of vogue. As J.D. tells Veronica in one of his tired, maniacal rants about power, strength and his father (the hypermasculine starter pack), “The extreme makes an impression.” Whether it’s this principle alone or the truth it manages to speak to the internal scream of the teenage condition that has enabled Heathers to carry its distorted message this far, we’re still listening.
Maintaining character relatability even in its quasi-nihilism, it’s more likely that Heathers has reached cult status not purely for its shock value and truly quotable dialogue (4) but because it dares to treat teenagers as fully culpable, emotionally intelligent and self-aware individuals, even when they’re stripped of their individuality by the high school machine.
After all, even in the aftermath of the queen bee’s death, who can resist Dreamy Christian Slater proclaiming, “Our love is God, let’s go get a slushie”?
(1) Never-forgotten duo The Veronicas ironically named themselves so because it symbolised individualism — “Are you a Heather?”, “No, I’m a Veronica.” You can take (take t-t-take time) time to live (live) the way you gotta (gotta) live your life, I guess.
(2) J.D. A.K.A. Jason Dean, A.K.A. the closest you can get to calling your character James Dean without calling your character James Dean.
(3) Spoilers, for thirty years ago: no pun intended.
(4) “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw!”