Original release: November 17th, 1989
Running time: 109 minutes
Director: Michael Lehmann
Writer: Daniel Waters
Cast: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater Kim Walker, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Renee Estevez, Carrie Lynn
School life is awful. Not only do we have to worry about doing well in class, studying subjects we aren’t remotely interested in, but we must also deal with the angst of puberty. Is my skin clear? Are my clothes fashionable? Why doesn’t anyone like me? Body concerns were things I heard everyday. Anywhere containing hundreds of teenagers five days a week can only lead to a vision resembling an animal house.
How could we forget the ‘popular’ kids? You know the type, the ones who thought they were in charge and naively believed that everyone aspired to be like them. But how many kids actually thought bad things about them, and how many turn their daydreams into murder? Directed by Michael Lehmann with an acid-tongued script by Daniel Waters, the 1989 cult classic Heathers, is ‘the high school film to end high school films’.
Welcome to Westerburg High, where 17-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has had enough of being part of the school’s most popular clique: the ‘Heathers’. Writing hate-fuelled entries in her diary, she longs to return to her old life and her nerdy friends, including Betty Finn (Renee Estevez), whom the Heathers despise and ostracize.
The clique contains the wealthy, beautiful and deeply unhappy girls with the same first name: vindictive ringleader, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), bulimic sidekick Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) and easily persuaded cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk). They run the school through cruelty and are deeply feared and hated by students.
Veronica falls for Jason Dean (Christian Slater), J.D. for short, and a rebellious, self-styled outsider who’s recently started at Westerburg High. Their dislike for the Heathers quickly escalates from an initial prank where they break into Heather Chandler’s mansion to preparing a cup full of drain cleaner for her as a wake up drink. The joke goes too far when she accidentally drinks it and dies in front of them, falling through a glass table. J.D. urges Veronica to forge a dramatic suicide note in Heather C’s handwriting in order to protect herself from suspicion. The school and community look upon Heather’s supposed suicide as tragic, yet in a strange way, hip. It seems she’s become more popular now she’s dead.
J.D. starts to distance Veronica further away from the clique and into a vicious cycle of killing other ‘popular’ students and portraying them as suicides. With outsiders mimicking the suicides as a way to gain popularity, Veronica realises that in order to regain the normality she once had, she must dissociate herself from J.D. and the remaining Heathers. But J.D. isn’t going to stop so easily and plans to blow up the entire school during a pep rally as the ultimate mass suicide.
What made Heathers an instant cult classic is that it portrayed the social hierarchy of everyday school life and teenagers could relate to it. As British writer Roz Kaveney suggests:
It went against the sweetness and optimism of the popular teen genre, seen in John Hughes classics such as The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986) and portrayed the negative and often surreal aspects of life. The first time I watched it my eyes were certainly opened. It wasn’t filled with happy romance obsessed teenagers but nasty bitchy characters you love to hate. Generally speaking, Heathers is a film about social acceptance, growing up and betrayed loyalties. It also highlights what some people will do to be noticed. For example Martha ‘Dumptruck’ Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn), an unpopular student, attempts to take her life by walking into oncoming traffic with a note attached to her with the intentions of becoming as popular as Heather Chandler.
The theme of suicide mirrors the real life events of teenagers who’ve committed or attempted suicide. It highlights the idea of how we all crave to be accepted in one-way or another and the struggles and pressures of conforming to the norm. Kaveney also notes that Heathers “is complex and intelligent both in its own right and as a response to earlier films both inside the teen genre and outside it.”
As one of the greatest black comedies of all time, Heathers also brings a surreal intelligence to a genre that was coated in sickly Hollywood gloss. Nine years after surviving secondary school I’ve come to the conclusion that adulthood isn’t that much different. We still try to look our best, crave to be socially accepted and strive to be successful. No matter where we are in the world, there will always be a clique or person we love to hate.
Jamie, editor for Cult Movies at Static Mass, is a 24 year old media studies graduate from Sheffield, who likes nothing better than watching films. If he was to star in a horror film he’d like to be the first one killed (think Drew Barrymore in Scream).
He has a keen interest in horror which started when he was a child. Due to his hyperactive behaviour his cousins made him watch films they thought would calm him down- They were wrong! It was watching Hellraiser and Killer Klowns from Outer Space that his passion for horror began. Over the years this developed into a passion for zombies, madmen, mutated animals and all things gore.
When he’s not working, in his dream world, worrying about zombie epidemics or watching films, he can be found on Twitter sharing his thoughts and bringing his dream world into reality.
You can follow Jamie on Twitter @JamieSuckley.