Heathers was a film ahead of its time, a claim few people will make about any other Winona Ryder movie. Still, the 1989 black comedy took no prisoners in its cynical and occasionally morbid depiction of the politics and hazards of high school. Since the film, countless others have attempted to recreate the same effect as Heathers but few have reached its popularity as well as its socially conscious message. Certainly there are some movies that share the same theme of the horrors of high school or a similar acerbic wit, but few have been able to recreate this quintessential 80s classic. For those who haven’t seen the film, it follows Veronica who belongs to the popular clique of girls, called “Heathers.” Dissatisfied with the current popularity system, Veronica finds a kindred spirit in J.D. However, J.D.’s solution to the popularity problem seems to be a little drastic. Together, Veronica and J.D begin to kill off the Heathers one by one, making them appear as suicides. The premise is dark, but surprisingly enough, Heathers never gets bugged down by talk of murder and suicide and manages to remain more charming than one would think.
In order to understand some of the appeal of the Heathers effect, it’s important to recognize the influences surrounding it, namely the other films of the time. When most people consider what 1980s cinema had to offer, there always seem to be two extremes. On the one hand, you had the movies of John Hughes which attempted to give a voice to the young generation that was otherwise misrepresented or all together forgotten. Although these films recognized the hardships of adolescence, more often than not, they are known for their hopeful endings. The other extreme of the 80s, another teen phenomenon, was the slasher movie that truly came into its own in the 1980s as it broke out of the fringe into a more mainstream position. But what does this have to do with Heathers The film itself is a collision of the two, recreating the angst of Hughes with the sensationalized violence of the slasher.
It seems odd to recognize Heathers as a trailblazer, but also as a byproduct of two cinema trends (the teen movie and the slasher) that ended up outliving it, but it was the way that it played off these trends that has led it to become such a cult classic. Heathers found a way to bring the hopes, dreams, and fears of an entire youth to the movie screen in 1989. After all, even if the film may seem dated now, its themes of the brutality of popularity, the isolation of the high school experience, and the frustration felt throughout it all remains universal to this day. In fact, with the recent of GLBT teen suicides, its exploration of teenage cruelty may be more relevant than ever. Heathers even deals with the gay teen suicide issue in a rather unusual way. Of course, the “suicide” itself is a murder but the only people that know that are J.D., Veronica, and the audience. The way that the rest of the people in the film react is somewhat telling. Although there are lines such as “I love my dead gay son!” that read as jokes, it’s interesting that they are included when the characters saying them aren’t in on the joke.
Still, it’s important to recognize that the film is not without its fault. Despite its alarmingly relevant and telling portrayal of the injustices of high school politics, the film falters in its attempt to make sense of itself. It caved into the pressure of being categorized and marketed, the same fate that many of its high school characters suffer. In an attempt to make it somewhat appealing, rather than just a straight dark comedy, there are elements of the John Hughes teen movie that are scattered throughout the film. One of the most noticeable and obnoxious elements, is the love interest. The romance seems forced and insincere, especially when the moments of bickering between veronica and J.D. are easily the highlights of Heathers. This faux romance weighs down the film, and even threatens to undermine the message of Heathers, but the politics of Hollywood made it a necessary addition.
In the end, Heathers offers a number of things to its audience. For the socially conscious, it presents a strong message. For those whose tastes tend to be slightly morbid, it’s definitely got something for them to enjoy. However, for modern audiences, it’s important to recognize what Heathers brought to the movie industry today. Without it, movies like Jawbreaker or Mean Girls might not even exist. So whether you enjoy the film and its message or not, it remains a piece of pop culture nostalgia whose influence lives on even to this day.