Heathers is so firmly established as a classic of dark satire that anyone who makes a film with remotely similar themes -- teen suicide, cliques, the general horror of high school life -- must endure comparisons to it. The title itself has become shorthand for a type of snobby, popular girl ("they're just a bunch of Heathers"), referenced in everything from Will & Grace to Gilmore Girls. When Mean Girls came out in 2004 -- directed by Mark Waters, whose brother Daniel wrote Heathers -- Heathers was mentioned in so many of the reviews you'd have thought Mean Girls was a remake of it.
The film deserves its classic status for being savagely funny and painfully truthful. The title characters are a trio of queen bees at a Midwestern high school; their fourth, named Veronica (Winona Ryder), clearly doesn't belong with them, not just because of her name but because of her attitude -- she doesn't look down on everyone else in the school the way the Heathers do. A dangerous new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), piques Veronica's interest, and the two of them wind up killing one of the Heathers and two thuggish football players ("they had nothing to offer the school but date rape and AIDS jokes"), staging their deaths to look like suicides.
As we approach the film's 20th anniversary (it was released theatrically on March 31, 1989), let's consider how lucky we are that it was ever made. Predating the Columbine shootings by exactly 10 years and 20 days, it's merely an unfortunate coincidence that J.D. points a gun at a couple of jocks, then seeks to blow up the school while wearing a black trench coat. Today, a film like Heathers would be seen as a commentary on real-life school shootings, making the satire seem even darker and more morbid (and, to many viewers, wholly inappropriate).
But even in 1988, before school violence became alarmingly common, Heathers had a hard time getting made. An increased incidence of teenagers killing one another in real life is not required for studio executives to be wary of depicting such things in film, especially in a comedy. It was finally an independent studio, New World Pictures (founded by Roger Corman, though he'd sold it in 1983), that took the risk on Daniel Waters' screenplay. Unfortunately, the company suffered huge financial problems around the time it was releasing the film, and Heathers didn't get the advertising and promotion it needed. The movie never played on more than five dozens screens and grossed only $1.1 million, finding most of its success on home video later on.
Waters says on the DVD that he'd hoped to get Stanley Kubrick to direct it, but it's hard to believe he ever seriously thought that was a possibility. At any rate, who he wound up with was first-timer Michael Lehmann, who managed to find some enthusiastic actors -- Winona Ryder still cites it as her favorite movie -- after people like Jennifer Connelly and Heather Graham turned it down. (In 17-year-old Graham's case, it was actually her mother who nixed her involvement.) But even with the adventurous New World Pictures involved, Waters and Lehmann still had to change the film's ending before they shot it. The original finale appears in screenplay form on the DVD, and it takes the gallows humor all the way to its logical conclusion: a prom in heaven, heaven being, in J.D.'s words, "the only place different social types can genuinely get along." Now that everybody's dead, they can be friends. The revised ending allows for that possibility in this life, which is much more optimistic -- and maybe more realistic, too, since most high school clique-related cruelty tends to disappear after graduation.
Audiences for a movie about teen angst don't want to hear that, though. They want to wallow in their misery and believe that life will always be as awful as it is in high school. Heathers feeds into that perfectly. Veronica's parents are vapid idiots with whom she exchanges the same banter every time they talk -- a feeling most teens can relate to. Killing themselves (or appearing to have done so, anyway) only makes Heather and the football players more popular, while a genuine suicide attempt from pathetic Martha Dumptruck only brings her more derision. The lesson? Your popularity, or lack of it, is set in stone, and nothing you do can change it. Since that's how a lot of kids feel, it's nice to see a movie tell them they're right. As Veronica's mother says, "When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it's usually because they are being treated like human beings" -- in other words, the unfairness and meanness of high school? That's life, buckaroo. What Mom is saying is just a more eloquent version of the suicide note that Veronica dreams up for one of the Heathers: "Life sucks."
But Heathers doesn't owe its longevity to teenagers enjoying it as a form of commiseration. No, the film's real genius is in appealing to adults who have gained enough perspective to enjoy it as a satiric exaggeration of their high school years. Almost everyone went to high school, and it was at least partially dreadful for almost everyone. We all knew some Heathers. And some Veronicas, and some J.D.s. And definitely some Martha Dumptrucks.
Not only might Heathers be impossible to make today, but it was serendipitous for its writer and director, too. It was both men's first feature film, and it's all been downhill from there. Lehmann went on to direct Hudson Hawk (which Waters helped write), Airheads, My Giant, and Because I Said So, to name a few. Waters had a hand in writing The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Batman Returns, and Demolition Man. Heathers must have been the result of luck and magic.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Heathers was released, 20 years ago this week, on March 31, 1989 ...
It opened on just 35 screens and never did play on more than 55 -- it was a small film that mostly achieved its fame on video. In theaters at the same time were top hit Rain Man, Fletch Lives, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
On TV, Quantum Leap had premiered five days earlier. Arsenio Hall's and Pat Sajak's talk shows had premiered earlier in the year. Cops was new, too. Meanwhile, Simon & Simon, Webster, and Super Password had all just finished their runs.
The top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was "The Living Years" by Mike + The Mechanics. It had just displaced Debbie Gibson's "Lost in Your Eyes," which had held the No. 1 spot for three weeks.
The Exxon Valdez had run aground in Alaska a week earlier, spilling 11 million gallons of oil.
High School Musical star Corbin Bleu and whiny young Anakin Skywalker Jake Lloyd were both about a month old. Arrested Development star Alia Shawkat and noted girlfriend-beater Chris Brown were both about to be born. Meanwhile, Japan's emperor Hirohito, weird artist Salvador Dalí, and killer Ted Bundy had all recently died. (OK, technically, Bundy was executed.) Lucille Ball and Sergio Leone both had a month to live.
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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where the catchy tune "Teen Suicide (Don't Do It)" is still a top hit.