It’s been 30 years since Heathers was released internationally (29 in the States), but the acid-tongued teen flick is more relevant now than ever. In a world of school shootings, rape culture and #MeToo moments, Michael Lehmann’s tale of queen bees and wannabes feels eerily prescient.
Heathers‘ influence is keenly felt in virtually every teen movie that’s followed it, from Mean Girls to Jawbreaker to Clueless. Nowadays, it’s also referenced in downbeat TV shows aimed at the teen market, including Riverdale, in which Cole Sprouse’s moody, overcoat-clad portrayal of Jughead has more than a touch of dangerous bad boy J.D. about it.
Fellow Netflix super-hit 13 Reasons Why, with its coverage of teen suicide, sexual assault and bullying — the second season even saw one student plot a shooting rampage, similar to J.D.’s plan to bomb the school — is like Heathers for a new generation, one that is more interested in being Insta-famous than high school popular.
Lehmann’s debut feature, wittily scripted by Daniel Waters, still feels ahead of its time even if its fashions have aged in the intervening years (such big hair everywhere). The film’s closest modern comparison is arguably Mean Girls, which is snarky but not quite as ruthless.
Heather Chandler’s ferocious control of her friend group echoes that of Regina George, while Veronica’s desperate need to fit in, and be liked, in spite of her better judgement is totally Cady Heron. Depending on one’s perception, Heron is either more or less easily indoctrinated by the cool kids than her predecessor.
Although many have paid homage to it, no film, or TV show, released in the past 30 years quite reaches Heathers‘ heights. It’s truly one of a kind, of its time in a way that makes it both a time capsule and timeless.
The film’s neon-bright palette, so sun-bleached it almost requires squinting, makes much of its opening moments feel like a fever dream, particularly when Veronica is used for target practice during a croquet game. Later, as she schemes with J.D., the cinematography softens, rooting the story, so there’s no misunderstanding about what’s really going down.
The funeral-set sequences, presided over by a desert-dry Glenn Shadix (who would later pop up as a hilarious take on Caligula in another teen classic, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), are fuzzily presented as fantasy when really they’re reality. Later, when stumbling into dreamland, the setup is much the same, demonstrating the film’s delicate balancing act between harsh realism and kooky outlandishness.
With Veronica’s increasingly unhinged voice-over, via her often late-night diary scribbles, Heathers is provided with an untrustworthy narrator it makes clear is untrustworthy right from the outset. She never breaks the fourth wall, Ferris Bueller style. Rather, her inner monologue provides context and excuses for her behavior, further blurring the lines.
Veronica’s the kind of anti-heroine movies are only now brave enough to feature, with the 2018 indie Thoroughbreds going above and beyond with two flawed female characters boasting murderous intentions. Similarly to Heathers, Thoroughbreds‘ horrid, privileged teens aren’t exactly punished for their indiscretions.
Unlike Heathers, however, it’s a young man (the late Anton Yelchin, in his final role) who’s used by the girls to concoct their master-plan, at least at first. Where Veronica initially falls for J.D.’s charms before ultimately realizing his insanity and confronting him, in a modern spin, Thoroughbreds sees Yelchin’s small-time criminal fleeing the scene, in fear of his contractors’ intentions.
Lehmann’s film also pre-empted the American fetishization of guns. When J.D. is first introduced, with Veronica drooling over him in the cafeteria, it’s just a few moments before he pulls out a loaded firearm and shoots a couple of their classmates (using blanks, but still).
Later on, Veronica chastizes her boyfriend for shooting his gun off for no good reason, but there’s little doubt that, initially, she’s turned on by his bad boy credentials. Curiously, J.D. doesn’t suffer too much of a punishment for his behavior, which is one of the reasons he manages to get away with so much murder and madness without anyone besides Veronica being wise to it.
Lehmann and Waters couldn’t have known how gun-centric the conversation would be in years to come, but their sharp film hints at the issues intrinsic in ignoring these kinds of bad apples when they’re young or, worse yet, encouraging them. It’s worth noting, too, that 13 Reasons Why‘s school murder plot doesn’t go ahead, and that the show was widely criticized for even including it in the wake of current events.
Heathers‘ treatment of rape culture is also ahead of its time — in particular when Heather Chandler is forced to give a college guy a blow job (the only time viewers get a glimpse at her humanity) and when Veronica tells another loser he isn’t good enough to hear her prepared, super-feminist speech. Sure, the girls emerge safer than perhaps they would nowadays, but the underlying message is clear.
The movie also taps into the media’s obsession with teen suicide, and their salacious handling of tragedy. As the so-called suicides rack up, so too do the camera crews hanging around the school. Heather Duke, eager to take Chandler’s place at the head of their eponymous crew, is only too happy to give interviews to anyone who will listen (as Veronica notes while flipping through the channels, disgusted to spot Duke on every single one).
The fact that much of the effort to broadcast the school’s tragedies to the nation is brainstormed by a teacher, herself eager to steal the spotlight, suggests young people have very few authority figures they can turn to when dealing with dark feelings. Veronica’s parents also fumble in discussing suicide and self harm with her, after being warned their daughter is a flight risk.
Indeed, one of Heathers‘ most striking images finds Veronica hanging from the ceiling of her bedroom, seemingly after taking her own life. It’s (hilariously) soon revealed to be a fake-out, aimed at tricking J.D. so Veronica can stop him from killing her, or everybody else in the school (or both), without him realizing she’s on his tail.
13 Reasons Why came under fire for its glamorizing of suicide via a graphic and lengthy sequence that found Hannah Baker succumbing to the darkness and gorily slitting her wrists in a bathtub. In contrast, Heathers‘ suicide scenes, although intermittently graphic, are over quickly and mostly played for laughs.
Rather than attempting to teach a grave, noble lesson, the flick stands as a warning of how quickly things can escalate when hormones and a degree of sociopathy, in the case of the clearly unhinged J.D., are involved. To that end, Veronica snatches the elusive red Scrunchie off Heather Duke’s head and declares that she’s the captain now. She knows that, if things are going to get better, the change has to come from within (but she still wants to be #1).
Heathers greatest strength, then, aside from its stellar cast (including soon-to-be megastars Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty), is its jet-black sense of humor. From Heather Chandler’s nonchalant death-grip on her friends, and the school at large, to Veronica’s hilarious diary rants, it never takes itself too seriously as to become preachy.
When Veronica and J.D. “accidentally” murder her BFF/nemesis, the audience is invited to laugh, rather than cringe. Chandler’s funeral is a veritable hoot, and Veronica can’t hold the giggles back when confronted with her friend’s seemingly peerless legacy in class. These are the moments that keep the film from feeling like an after-school special.
Still, its heart is in the right place. The final image of Heathers, a movie with plenty to say about bullying and the danger of high school cliques, finds Veronica befriending the only kid in school who genuinely tried to kill herself (er, aside from J.D., who was on some kind of crazy mission and doesn’t really count).
The message of that final shot, which sees Veronica strolling down the hallway alongside someone who gravely needs her companionship, is timeless. (This moment is actually echoed in Mean Girls, when Cady praises an overweight, wheelchair-bound classmate’s glamorous look on Prom night).
Although Heathers’ influence is still being felt today, a spin-off TV series, rumored for years, was dropped by Paramount in the face of massive backlash. Lightning very rarely strikes twice, and it’s clear that something like Heathers could not be replicated nowadays — at least not in the same way.
Considering everything that’s referenced Heathers since, and the impact it’s had, a TV spin-off, or movie reboot, hardly seems necessary. Times have changed — Time’s Up, in fact — so why try to redo, or outdo, something that still resonates a whopping 30 years after its release, something that still feels timely and relevant? Jughead can keep the coat. Heathers lives on.
Watch ‘Heathers’ at Shudder.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.