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.
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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.

That scene is an early preview of what happens with the drunk jock: After Veronica rebuffs him, the third Heather is raped by his best friend. The take lasts several minutes, with Heather and her assailant struggling in a field. The scene ends with JD rescuing Veronica from the situation, yet the painful joke is what happens in the background: Veronica has a cute relationship-building moment, while her friend becomes a sexual assault victim. If Lehmann shot the scene with deep focus, it would have been an early precursor to 12 Years a Slave’s use of long takes to demonstrate a culture’s cruel banality. Instead, Heather and her assailant flail in the distance and the camera dares us not to care.

With its sneaky subversiveness and disgust for its characters, Heathers is more ambitious than most high-school comedies. Clueless and Mean Girls focus on the social hierarchy, yet they’re merely coming-of-age tales that affirm the community: Alicia Silverstone’s Cher joins a cadre of women who look forward to long-term commitment, and Lindsay Lohan’s Cady finally declares that she’s normal. Veronica may save the school, but she’s also a self-loathing masochist–at one point, she burns herself with a cigarette later as a means of contrition. More importantly, she’s complicit in the suicide of her ex-boyfriend, and she rejects the social ladder altogether. The only modern high-school comedy that approaches a similarly bleak outcome is Alexander Payne’s Election, and even then the students emerge relatively unscathed.

Heathers’ most influential character is JD, an anti-hero so cruel that he's uncomfortable to watch. In a harrowing sequence from Veronica’s nightmares, JD commits yet another Heather murder and sloppily assembles a fake suicide letter that abandons thoughtful prose in favor of “LIFE SUCKS.” In real life, he tricks the student body into unwittingly signing a mass suicide note—an example of how Veronica enabled JD to exploit the thoughtless conformity of high school to prey upon weaker, more insecure students. Heathers has the courage to sympathize with a psychopath who exposes how dangerous it can be when fads and gossip are more influential than basic decency.

All of this adds up to one of the most pitiless settings ever found in a comedy. Real high schools are never this bad, although they can feel that way when one’s experience is like Martha Dunnstock, the hapless overweight victim who’s relegated to an ongoing class punch line.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the Broadway version really gets the genius bleakness of the original. An early preview of the musical Heathers reveals that Veronica’s monologues are now big numbers about how high-school can be suffocating. None of the songs have the film’s creative profanity, or even a tinge of satire. It’s a sad thought, Heathers turned into a mere Glee episode about suicide. As Veronica might ask, what’s the upchuck factor on that?

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

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