School is meant to be the best days of your life. You’re expected to lap it up, have fun all the time, not have to worry about bills, keeping a job or any of that adult stuff. But if 80s cult horror-comedy Heathers can teach us anything, it’s that nobody really thinks of school as the best days of your life – at least, not whilst you’re there anyway.
Director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters’ comic takedown of US high school cliques has been compared to similar films of its ilk ever since it first appeared in 1988, from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, to Alexander Payne’s Election, and all that’s in between. And yet, how many of those comparisons actually hold up? Is Heathers typical of its sub-genre (if you can even call it that)? Well, no. Heathers is a darker version of almost all of its contemporaries, often employing individual characters to represent stereotyped groups and ritually humiliating them in the most absurd of fashions.
Breaking from the popular-girls clique that is warping her reputation, the snarky, smart, angst-ridden diary-keeping Veronica (Winona Ryder) finds herself deeply entwined in a series of “accidental” murders with new boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater). Each of the cool kids, the jocks, the wannabes and posers begin to suffer from sudden and unexplained deaths…
Granted, at face value, the premise does not sound anything at all like a John Hughes movie – and that’s probably because it isn’t. The comparisons have become cliche and often do not marry up. On the surface, this is essentially a story about how high school cliques define us, rather than allow us to define ourselves. We categorise each other, which in turn can be seen as a satire of how groups outside of school and in the wider world categorise other groups and find confrontation in nonconformity of those arbitrarily defined and assigned classification systems. But more than that, Heathers is a cynical swipe at conventions of the coming-of-age comedies. These kids, they’re not just the “popular girls”, the “dumb jocks”, the “theatre nerds” but are in fact the genre’s representation of the caricatures. Lehmann and Waters set about dismantling these tired representations in a darkly humorous way.
For example, the first time we see Veronica, she is literally neck deep in her clique. As in, she is buried up to her neck in the ground while the other popular girls in her clique (including Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty)) play polo, batting the ball against her head. Veronica is trapped – physically and metaphorically – not because she can’t get out of the clique, but by boundaries associated with high school. She has to belong to a clique, whether she chooses one or if others decide it for her; and she knows it. Life demanded she make a choice and this is what she chose.
But the journey that Veronica goes on through the course of the film as she anarchically destroys the walls put up around her, whether directly or indirectly, does not lead her to become a completely new person by the end, moreover a new way of being a high schooler presents itself. It suddenly seems ok to be nice, to not be worried about what cliques exists or how others will categorise you, because all that matters is how you present yourself and the choices you make.
And sandwiched between these two revelations is some of the funniest, wittiest, most scathing comedy that has ever been put on a film of this calibre. Veronica is as annoying to be around as any know-it-all is (teenage or otherwise) and too-cool-for-school J.D. is immediately recognisable as a creep, but it is easy to understand how a girl like Veronica could be turned on by his aloofness and the danger he presents. The performances of Ryder – only two years after Beetlejuice had been released – and Slater in their respective roles is first class (pardon the pun) and really brings these characters to life. Ryder especially excels in every scene and often carries large portions of the movie with minimal dialogue – or often acting to an internal monologue narrating certain sections.
There’s not much left to say about Heathers that hasn’t been said a million times in other reviews over the last 30 years except that perhaps now more than ever, there’s an unsettling undercurrent about high schoolers getting revenge on their classmates by murdering them and having it played for laughs. Clearly the murder is metaphorical in the sense that Veronica is being shown that there is life outside of the divisions she has imagined, but viewed in 2018, it seems unsavoury in a way that one assumes was marginally less so upon release. Nevertheless, the new 4k restoration release is a must see for fans old and new alike.
Heathers 30th Anniversary 4K Restoration is released in UK cinemas from 8th August courtesy of Arrow Films – and will screen at the Prince Charles Cinema, London, through August – and will be released on digital and on demand from 20th August.