Heathers (1989)

Heathers first published by Movie Gazette

Smart teenager Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has problems, which she obsessively chronicles in her diary. At high school she has become an honorary member of a bitchy clique whose three other members are all called Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker), and she is attracted to their popularity as much as she is repelled by their endless humiliation of others to maintain it. New-in-town rebel-without-a-cause Jason ‘JD’ Dean (Christian Slater) seems to be the only one who understands Veronica’s predicament – but when he starts turning her fantasies into reality by murdering the friends she secretly hates, Veronica finds herself becoming a not entirely unwilling accomplice in JD’s psychotically revolutionary scheme for improving life in school and society.

Of course teenagers have always had problems, but in eighties cinema they had it particularly bad. Either they were condemned to blaming everything automatically on teacher or daddy in John Hughes’ ‘dramedies’, or their lives were literally being torn apart by Freddy, Jason or countless other teen-hating slashers. Then Heathers came riding along out of nowhere like JD on his motorbike, and the landscape of adolescent angst was changed forever. By portraying teens as their own worst enemies in a vicious battle between highly stratified peer groups, and marginalising adults (parents, teachers, even the clergy) as largely clueless outsiders with little or no influence on their young wards, Heathers created a version of the American high school experience that captured the pain and cruelty of the real thing, before blowing it up into murderously dark satire.

One of the reasons Heathers still seems fresh today is that it was so far ahead of its own time. First-time director Michael Lehmann avoided casting familiar Eighties bratpackers because he wanted his teen characters to be played by actual adolescents, and so the film instead features faces that would become icons of the next decade (Ryder, Slater, Doherty) – while the film’s special brand of blank amorality and knowing irony represents what is probably cinema’s first glimpse at Generation X. The witty hyperreality of Daniel Waters’ screenplay (with mannered zingers like “fuck me gently with a chainsaw, do I look like Mother Theresa?”) was like nothing ever heard before, but firmly established a template for snappy teenspeak evident in many, if not all, subsequent Hollywood teen flicks. Without Heathers, there would simply have been no Clueless, no Election, no Slap Her, She’s French, no Mean Girls.

When Heathers came out in 1989, its comic malice was a reaction to the facile moralism of John Hughes’ films, and to the moronic way that teenagers in general, and teenage suicide in particular, were then being idealised in the mainstream media. Yet to view it again in a post-Columbine age is to realise that yesterday’s sardonic hyperbole has become today’s grim reality. For all its over-the-top hilarity as a dissection of teen problems, Heathers now seems dangerously prescient – which only adds to its explosive bite.

© Anton Bitel