Still Very, 25 Years Later: The Bleak Genius of Heathers

The black comedy isn't just a forbearer to Clueless and Mean Girls—it's one of the most scathing indictments of high-school groupthink ever made.
New World Pictures

The cult of Heathers, the 1988 black comedy about two high school students who unintentionally make suicide popular, has grown so much in 25 years that it’s now gotten that ultimate niche-classic coronation: adaptation as a Broadway musical. Early notices for the stage production, which opens Monday—the anniversary of the film’s release in the U.S., where it flopped—says it “aims to strike a more hopeful, optimistic tone by the end” than the movie did.

To which any diehard Heathers fan might answer something like, “fuck me gently with a chainsaw.”

Optimism, see, has no place in Heathers’ appeal. The film is often mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Mean Girls and Clueless due to its subject matter and snappy dialogue, but Heathers features a dark streak unmatched by its descendants. Seen today, it deserves to be celebrated as an early, scathing critique of a culture that celebrates mediocrity and is indifferent to suffering.

Like most of its genre peers, Heathers begin with anthropological exam of high-school cliques. The most popular students are the “Heathers,” three girls who share the same first name and fashion sense (big hair, bigger shoulder pads). Their most recent recruit is Veronica (Winona Ryder), a smart girl who distinguishes herself from the Heathers through precocious self-awareness and the vestiges of empathy (the Heathers have none). A “lunchtime poll” gives the Heather, Veronica, and director Michael Lehmann an excuse to take a census of the students, and Veronica’s last poll victim is JD (Christian Slater), a new kid who’s skeptical of the social hierarchy. His mannered indifference piques Veronica’s interest, of course, so they sleep together after Veronica and the alpha Heather (Kim Walker) have a disastrous night at a college party.

Despite post-coital bliss, Veronica is angry at Heather after their falling out—Heather calls her “a Girl Scout cookie,” among other things—so Veronica remarks to JD that she wants her dead. The problem is that JD is an atypical misanthrope, so when they’re joking in the kitchen about how to get Heather to puke from a hangover cure, JD suggests a bottle of drain cleaner. Veronica instead concocts a cocktail of orange juice and milk, but then grabs the wrong bottle, a mistake that JD does not bother to point out. The mixture kills Heather, and Veronica and JD fake a suicide note. All of a sudden, suicide becomes the latest high school fad.

Lehmann and his screenwriter Daniel Waters may ostensibly focus on death, yet Heathers is at its most biting when it explores other hot-button issues in a casual way. There is an early scene where Veronica and the Heathers are in the bathroom, and Veronica gladly assists in a lesser Heather’s bulimia (she flexes her index finger and quips, “A true friend’s work is never done”). The dialogue initially suggests Lehmann and Waters are mocking her suffering, as if they think eating disorders are hilarious, yet the light-hearted tone has its purpose: The lesser Heather starts eating once the alpha dies, a development that carefully pinpoints the terrible costs of long-term emotional abuse.

Heathers also offers a sophisticated take on teen drinking and sexual assault. Three men attempt to rape Veronica at various points: JD, a drunk college loser, and a drunk high-school jock. The latter two scenes are downright disturbing. Veronica gets away with her self-esteem and body intact, but on both occasions she’s on a double date with two different Heathers, who aren’t so lucky. At the college party, the alpha Heather is pressured into performing oral sex on a college-age predator; her subsequent look of self-loathing in the mirror is brutal.

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Alan Zilberman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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