After a decade of era defining American high school comedies (mostly from John Hughes) and tawdry, derivative innuendo-heavy teen sex farces like Porky’s, Meatballs, Beach Balls, Screwballs and Oddballs etc., in 1989 director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters warped the teen high school comedy with their feature debut, Heathers. This cutting, provocative slice of poisoned cherry pie had cult written all over it from the outset with its weaving of provocative themes such as teen suicide, mass murder and psychosis into the fabric of the high school comedy. Heathers was nothing like anything that had come before it. Aside from its critical success and fast growing fan-base, Lehmann and Waters’ debut left a minimal dent in the box office; raking in just $177, 247 on its opening weekend, despite doing well later on VHS.
Its script was penned from the perspective of Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), a practical scene surfer in an Ohio high school of hyperbolic stereotypes. The myriad of characters that make up Lehmann’s film are mediated by the Heathers (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty): a clique of three abhorrent, callous vamps who take it upon themselves to act as Westerburg High’s trend/ people mediators. After ditching her lifelong BFFBF Betty Finn (Renee Estevez) to become an unofficial member of the Heathers’ sect, Veronica soon starts to see them for who they really are. Following a house party faux pas, Veronica is swiftly exiled from the group and threatened with a public discrediting from lead Heather (Chandler). But loner rebel, biker Jason Dean (Christian Slater) may have a solution to her problem.
As well as being more visually arresting, melding a vibrant suburban Gothic/ Kitsch hybrid palette, and slicker than any of the 80s high school comedies that came before it, Heathers’ sharp, cutting and constantly quotable dialogue and relatable subject matter provides an immense substance which informs its characters and central story-line. It perfectly encapsulates the complexities of American teenage life with fearless nuance. Lehmann and Waters distort and subvert the high school stereotypes without sabotaging them with contempt. Facets are heightened to make the characters uglier but also more fascinating. As well as Slater’s rebel without a cause, the nerd, obese kid, meat-headed jock douche, hippy/ stoner and vacuous cad are all present and accounted for, but it is Heathers’ wry social commentary on teenage fear masked by a “cool” façade to protect their vulnerabilities, which resounds as its key strength, above that of the subgenre cog warping.
Veronica and J.D are captivating protagonists, because they both couldn’t care less about fitting in. Sawyer confidently convalesces with everyone, remaining independent, while J.D’s psychosis is extrapolated and utilised to inform the principal plot-line. Along with the vibrant colours, droll dialogue and fanciful deaths, this makes Heathers still so rich and relevant, even thirty years on. Yet, Heathers sometimes does feel like a product of its time. Mostly this is because there was nothing quite like it beforehand, but what doesn’t help is the ghastly, tagged on pop song by Big Fun (Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)) recalling the plastic, corporate pop punched into lesser earlier high school regurgitations. The song seems like a parody within Lehmann’s sardonic grasp, which cannot be said for the homophobic cusses uttered by admittedly douchebag characters who are equally rough as they are preposterous, yet this smacks of a deeper inelegance.
While Heathers’ financial draw was hugely disappointing, its nifty spirit could be felt in the band of films that followed under the “slacker” tag throughout the 90s. These included: SFW, Empire Records, Suburbia, Generation X and Slacker, and ushered in a new kind of cult cinema/ Generation X movement which also encompassed more commercial efforts like Reality Bites and Pump Up The Volume. Elements of Heathers could be picked up in films that were similar to those it subverted, such as: Clueless, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, 10 Things I Hate about You, Mean Girls, She’s All That and, more so, in American Beauty, a decade later. In the same year as Sam Mendes’ classic, American Pie paradoxically harked back to tawdry 80s sex comedies Heathers cut ties with, playfully subverting Porky’s and the likes in a different way to which Heathers did, ten years earlier.
Throughout the noughties, Heathers presence could still be felt in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and (in late 99) Alexander Payne’s Election, which incorporated a similar prickly edge into their designs. While slyly altering subgenres and birthing new film movements, Heathers provided a timeless, precise and derisive perspective on the darker side of American high school life, not previously seen in earlier films of its ilk. Recent stage/ musical and TV series adaptations stress Heather’s enduring relevance and potency but Lehmann’s original will always be a snapshot of adolescence (at the time) in transition and American youth in revolt.
Characters may set trends, forge campaigns and send vile messages without websites, social media or iPhones, but Heathers remains a cult classic with timeless qualities that will resonate with both the youth of today and generations to come.
HEATHERS will be re-released in cinemas on 8th August and comes to Digital & On Demand on 20th August