The razor-sharp, lethally funny, pitch-black comedy classic Heathers (1989) stars Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer, a high school senior who’s taken in by the most powerful clique on campus, the Heathers (so named because its three existing members are all named Heather). After rejecting how the Heathers rule the school through snooty cruelty, Veronica hooks up with J.D. Dean (Christian Slater), a new kid who exudes danger—and more than lives up to it.
Heathers has long reigned as a cult favorite. It’s also spun-off a successful off-Broadway musical version that continues to be produced locally all over the world.
Still, with all it’s murder and mayhem, Heathers might is likely to startle and alarm today’s young Millennial generation. After all, their nastiest high school comedy is the sweet-natured, feel-good Mean Girls (2004). With that in mind, here’s a guide to understanding Heathers for Millennials. Read it gently with a chainsaw.
Before Columbine, School Violence Could Still Seem Funny
Heathers sends up and tears down adolescent angst by using serial murder as a comic device and presenting abhorrent acts as twisted teenage justice. It also openly mocks what, in real life, would be unthinkable tragedies. By the late 1980s, the amount of shootings and mass violence in schools remained a rarity and, as such, fertile ground for nasty comedy. Today, it’s just too real.
Dark and Even “Sick” Humor Is Actually a Healing Device
Considering that satire is almost entirely absent in the present-day comedy landscape, it becomes pertinent to inform Millennials when it comes to Heathers’ staged suicides and drain-cleaner cocktails that, A) It’s only a movie; B) Black comedy and gallows humor have enabled humanity to cope with and actually prevent future real-life horrors since the dawn of time; and C) Really—it’s only a movie.
Heathers Champions Millennial Causes—With Bullets
After shooting two jerky, homophobic football jocks, J.D. justifies the murder by saying, “Kurt and Ram had nothing left to offer the school except date rape and AIDS jokes.” He and Veronica then set up the crime scene to look like Kurt and Ram killed one another in a gay lovers’ suicide pact. After their funeral, the dead athletes inadvertently become symbols of acceptance of all sexual orientations. It’s easy to imaging that Millennial social media posters would likely post en masse about how that ends justified those means.
Christian Slater Is Imitating Jack Nicholson
As literally explosive teenage criminal mastermind J.D. Dean, Christian Slater delivers a highly stylized performance that, if you’re unaware he’s directly channeling Hollywood icon Jack Nicholson, can come off as completely bizarre. Nicholson ruled from the 1960s into the ’90s as the movies’ most anarchic star, with chaos forever lurking just behind his cocked eyebrow and untrustworthy grin. Slater applies that specific Nicholson energy to Heathers and it works.
“Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” Spoofs a Queen Song
A pop song called “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” by a group named Big Fun plays throughout Heathers, and it’s jarringly hilarious. However, the superstar rock group Queen really did score a minor hit in 1980 with “Don’t Try Suicide.” It’s the B-side to their smash single “Another One Bites the Dust,” which, interestingly, turned lyrics about an angry gunman opening fire in public into a dance-rock sensation. Heathers cheekily addresses that irony through the Big Fun number.
Croquet Was Not Actually an ’80s Teen “Thing”
The Heathers routinely playing this antiquated, upper-crust lawn game. That’s actually just symbolic of how removed and snobbish they are regarding reality. Cool kids didn’t actually play a lot (if any) croquet back then.
Giant Suit Coats With Shoulder Pads for Girls, However, Was an ’80s Teen “Thing”
Heathers definitely doses accurately pinpoint the female high-school fashions of its era. Some might joke that that would be enough to send anyone on a crime spree.
Heathers Draws (a Lot) From Previous Dark Teen Satires
Although never expressly credited, two cult films clearly influenced Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann.
The first is Lord Love a Duck (1966), a scathing satire of mid-’60s Southern California youth that ends with spectacular school assembly violence. Roddy McDowell and Tuesday Weld star as archetypes that deeply inform the characters of J.D. and Veronica. It was billed as, “The movie with something to offend everyone!” (there was a time when that could really be a selling point—and it was a better time than now, kids).
Massacre at Central High (1976), the other film to most profoundly impact Heathers, is a strange, artful exploitation flick hybrid of action, horror, and political allegory about the new kid in school taking out the campus power elite one-by-one. Its final moments are virtually recreated by Heathers.
This is all to point out that the issues addressed in Heathers, and the dark-hearted humor applied to them, had long been brewing in the culture. In our present time, you get Disney’s High School Musical franchise. Somebody, somewhere, must think that’s cool.