Words by Blythe Alspaugh
My college angst bullshit has a movie review blog.
Those of you familiar with the 1988 teen flick starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater will understand that reference. Those who aren’t…well, we’ll get there.
Directed by Michael Lehmann, “Heathers” takes place in Sherwood, Ohio and revolves around a clique of three girls named Heather—Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) and Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk). Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is a recent addition to the clique of mean girls, though she wants to break free of those chains and run back to her nerd-herd of friends she had before she became popular. She hates the Heathers to the point that she wishes they were dead—and she gets her wish in the accidental murder of Heather Chandler, committed with the help of brooding bad boy Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean (Christian Slater). Veronica and J.D. cover up Heather’s murder as a suicide, complete with a forged note. However, in the wake of Heather Chandler’s death, Chandler becomes even more popular among the students of Westerburg High. Through some mishaps and lies, Veronica and J.D. end up murdering two members of the football team and frame those murders as suicides. As the film runs its course, suicide becomes the “trendy” new thing—one teacher defines it as the most important decision you can make as a teenager. Veronica becomes consumed with guilt as J.D. plots to blow up the school in the middle of a pep rally and frame the whole thing as a suicide pact among the students of Westerburg High—and the only person who can stop him is Veronica.
“Heathers” is a teen comedy dressed in colorful hues and seasoned with dark humor and incredible depth for its genre. To me, it’s the first teen comedy with a girl-powered cast that drives the plot. Yes – before ‘Clueless,’ before ‘Easy A,’ before “Pitch Perfect” and before “Mean Girls,” there was “Heathers.” Regina George likely had a full-out shrine dedicated to the original HBIC Heather Chandler, complete with a red scrunchie and a bag of BBQ corn nuts.
Despite the fact that “Heathers” was a box office disaster and only grossed $1.1 million, it gained popularity when it was released to home video and has since become a cult classic. The writing is smart and the actors breathe real life—and death—into their characters.
While the storyline seems sensational and over-the-top, the students of Westerburg High and the main cast are realistic people. Heather Chandler may be the head mean girl of the school, but she’s a mean girl with depth—and she’s only alive for the first 20 minutes of the film. Heather Duke begins the film as a bookish, meek follower to Heather Chandler, but in the wake of her leader’s death she slowly becomes more cold and cutthroat. She even dons the same signature red threads that Heather Chandler left behind.
Heather McNamara seems, at the start, as nothing more than an airheaded cheerleader, but through the course of the film we see her real internal struggles to the point where she almost commits suicide. Veronica Sawyer just wants to get through her junior and senior year surrounded by friends she actually likes, but finds herself spiraling down a dark path because she’s trapped in a murder pact with the guy she thought was just “edgy.” And finally, there’s J.D.—you think he’s just your standard movie bad-boy until he starts to slowly unravel in the wake of murdering members at the top of the social ladder. His transition from mysterious new kid to bloodthirsty sociopath is chilling and memorable—Christian Slater even molded his performance after Jack Nicholson.
Beyond the main cast’s performance is the overall depth of the film, which is to say, excellent. Teenagers are referencing Shakespeare and blabbering slang in the same breath, and the moment suicide starts hitting the school, everyone becomes a supporter for mental health awareness and an advocate for suicide prevention. The film is, for me, ahead of its time—while this open dialogue isn’t wholly taboo now, you have to consider that “Heathers” was released in the late ‘80s, and many actors turned the script away because the subject matter was so dark.
“Heathers” stands strong as a cult classic, tackling dark topics with a silver tongue and rapier wit from the mouths of colorful, three-dimensional characters in the bleak realm of high school. I’m giving it four and a half out of five stars.