In 1989 Winona Ryder was a young darling of the movie industry after the role that boosted her into the spotlight Beetlejuice was released to critical and commercial success. After Jennifer Connelly turned downed it down, Winona won the role of the seemingly innocent lead, Veronica Sawyer. Following a string of John Hughes films celebrating the highs and superficial lows of being a teenager in high school, screenwriter Daniel Waters decided to write a script about teenagers at their worst to be directed by Michael Lehmann. Enter Veronica and love interest J.D., what starts out as a typical teen comedy about one girl’s growing pains adjusting from geek to being a part of the socially elite soon turns into a teen Bonnie and Clyde crime thriller. As Veronica says, her “teenage angst has a body count” which leaves a high school without their main villains and turns them into victims of teen suicide. A uniquely dark and stylized movie for its time, being released a decade before being ironic was mainstream filmmaking and high schools were yet to be synonymous with mass murder. As a film solidly cemented as a cult classic celebrated by critics, Heathers is the precursor to other teen classics including Clueless (1995) and Mean Girls (2004) and after turning 25 years old this year does it still hold up?
I invited three students, all raised around 2004 hit Mean Girls, and introduced them to the cult classic that is Heathers. As people in their late teens/early twenties we are familiar with the Mean Girls and Clueless’s of the world as well as being a post-Columbine generation that is more aware of violence and teens being linked in film as well as in real life. As teens who are closely familiar with American high school movies, the initial reaction to Heathers was that similar to watching High School Musical for the first time as an adult. With viewing habits of crap movies on Channel 4 growing up, we’ve seen every sub-par teen movie made from Bring It On to She’s All That we’re a generation sensitive to the tropes of the typically high school flick. The consensus of the movie twenty minutes in was quite negative as it was deemed “incredibly superficial,” “light-hearted” and overall “shit”.
Alex, 20 year old student, described his reaction to the movies as “an 80s Mean Girls… but when the killing started, I couldn’t decide whether it was a thriller, horror or comedy.” The movie straddles many genres and melds them together well, however Mia, 19 year old student, said it “lost focus in the second act.” Another jarring thing is the timestamp of the movie,
What stands out more than the eighties hair and the crazy plot is the language that Waters works into the script. After a decade of teens talking properly, Heathers explores the lingo of teens and twists it to highlight the aggression of the teens. Quotable lines include “What’s your damage, Heather?” and “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” Other phrase said in the movie is “Let’s jam” which stands in for ‘leave’, yet there is also a sophistication of language that is beyond the people who deliver the dialogue. This way of writing for teens is something that echoes very strongly in the movie Mean Girls, which was paralleled with a lot by the reviewers.
Screenwriter Tina Fey said to entertainment outlet IGN in 2004 that Mean Girls was “a more hopeful Heathers” and “more realistic”. When comparing the two, my reviewers were able to see this once I told them the relationship between them. Emily, who had seen it recently for the first time before reviewing even said “At first I thought that Tina Fey had copied it, which means that she is a fraud Mean Girls was just a rip off, but now I see how it’s been used.” “I would rather watch this than Mean Girls.” Emily agreed saying that there is Heathers is less “sugar-coated” and had more “substance.”
Heathers is without a doubt an 80s timestamp with its synth score, which Emily deemed “not affective”. However, Alex disagreed saying that “it fit the movie”. Another timestamp was the “lack of diversity” as Emily put it, there were few black people including extras, something that has changed in the past few decades. The fashion in Heathers is important as it defines the character such as the quirky style of Veronica and the importance of the red scrunchie to hierarchy. The style of the movie is timeless as all three reviewers praised the stylistic choices of the director, Emily said “The visual effects were interesting, very Tim Burton. It reminded me pf Beetlejuice.”
There was a consensus that Heathers is definitely not for teenagers, despite being aimed at them. In John Ross Bowie book Heathers (Deep Focus), Daniel Waters said that “People in their 20s and 30s, they respond to the movie, they respond of the movies the right way,” whereas teenagers didn’t quite get the layers of Heathers. Mia said that “the script was obviously written by an older person.” Veronica and JD are far too confident and aggressive to be realistic teenagers. Between the 1989 teen audience and the reviewers, there is a political savvy that is more present. The critiques of society in the movie are prominent, such as the reaction to the suicides, “people trying to attract attention to themselves, get their fifteen minutes.” Emily said, “if the top people change in society there is someone who is just as bad but different.”
Heathers more than holds up as a movie that makes a powerful and timeless statements about society such as the hypocrisy of people and the stress of popularity. It ages better than most John Hughes flicks that ignore wider issues and isolates the In Heathers the ultimate revenge fantasy, albeit by accident on Veronica’s part, is lived out through these teens. Waters does a great job of delivering the issues of complacency and power struggles through teens and their scrunchies. Even though the hair and shoulder pads are huge, the message is still clear and yet jokes are laced in seamlessly. It will have you asking “How the hell did this get made?”