Monday Morning Movie Review: Heathers (1989)

Today marks the end of summertime fun and the beginning of work.  Classes for the school year won’t start for another nine days, but I’ll be filling out various bits of legalese paperwork and taking the same bloodborne pathogens quiz I’ve taken every August for the paste decade.

In the spirit of beginning another year of academic rigmarole and inspirational mind-molding, I decided to review the 1989 dark comedy Heathers, starring Wynona Rider and Christian Slater as two oddball teens who declare war against the titular popular clique that rules the school.

I first watched Heathers on Hulu back in 2019 with the girl I was dating at the time.  I remember it being far darker than I anticipated, and found the second half of the film unpleasant.  I usually enjoy unsettling movies, but tonally it seemed “off.”

I re-watched the film a couple of weekends ago on The Last Drive-in with Joe Bob Briggs, and must substantially revise my original assessment of the film.

I still think the first half of the film is more enjoyable—it’s incredibly tight; Joe Bob Briggs called it one of the best written first acts ever written—but the second half held up much better for me this time.  The first time, I wasn’t expecting Christian Slater’s character to become so completely insane, and I thought the film was going to be less darkly satirical.  I was expecting more of a wacky comedy that played on its dark elements more lightly.

Once I came to appreciate Heathers for the very black satire it is, I enjoyed it much more.  I attribute this in no small part to Joe Bob’s commentary, which really added to a deeper understanding of the flick.  Heathers was the writing debut of Daniel Walters, who wanted to write a script that felt like a John Hughes film that Stanley Kubrick directed (Kubrick did not direct Heathers; Michael Lehmann directed in his film debut).

Just imagine that:  Stanley Kubrick directing a teen coming-of-age comedy.  That’s Heathers.

The film opens with the three Heathers playing croquet, smacking Veronica (Ryder) in the head with their balls.  I’m still not sure if that’s a fantasy sequence—a metaphor for the abuse Heather 1 doles out to Veronica—or an actual form of teenaged hazing.  Immediately, the film depicts the elitism and casual cruelty of Heather 1, and her wicked control over her minions.

In the cafeteria, Veronica catches the eye of Jason “J.D.” Dean (Slater), who wins her over with his intelligence, dark charisma, and Jack Nicholson-esque cadence.  After a disastrous vomiting incident at a college party, which sees Heather 1 threaten Veronica with exposure, Veronica muses with J.D. about murdering her frenemy.

J.D. proceeds to whip up a toxic brew, which ends with Heather 1 collapsing onto a glass table.  The two panic, but Veronica’s ability to counterfeit anyone’s handwriting pays off, and she pens a suicide letter for Heather.

Rather than solving Veronica’s social problems, Heather is lauded as a hero after her death.  Soon, Heather 2 (Shannen Doherty)—previously meekly putting up with Heather 1’s domineering leadership—fills the power vacuum left behind by her deceased namesake.  J.D. finds he has a taste for staging murders as suicides, and offs (with Veronica’s complicity) two jocks, making their deaths appear to be the dual suicide of two gay lovers.

Suddenly, suicide becomes all the rage at the high school, with the hippie art teacher staging a televised hand-holding that devolves into students clamoring for media attention.  Heather 3 attempts suicide, but Veronica stops her in time.  Meanwhile, a particularly fat, sad girl legitimately decides to end her life, but survives the attempt, only for Heather 2 to snarlingly dismiss her as trying to get in on the cool “fad” that the popular kids started.

Veronica finally has enough of J.D.’s murderous ways, and confronts him over his ultimate plan:  to blow up the entire school, with a suicide note signed (under false pretenses) by every kid in school.  J.D. claims it will be the ultimate statement of social discord, and he and Veronica can start a revolution of explosive mass suicides in high schools across the country.

Fortunately, Veronica thwarts his plans and makes friends with the fat girl.  Apparently, the writer had two much darker endings planned.  In one, J.D.’s plan would succeed.  The studio, naturally, wouldn’t go along with that, so instead, he pitched his second ending:  when Veronica invites the fat girl to watch movies with her, the fat girl would blow Veronica’s brains out.

Not surprisingly, that ending did gel well either, so this very dark, black comedy at least ends on a hopeful note, with Veronica realizing that being kind to people is better than seeking out popularity (which she had already kind of learned at the beginning of the film, as she was already frustrated with Heather 1’s cruelty and capriciousness).

Contra the Hughes films that inspired it, Heathers is a depiction of the dark side of high school—bullying, cliques, status-jockeying, etc.  It also explores ideas like fame, public moralizing (virtue-signaling), and the commodification and glamorization of suicide.

One of the more interesting ideas is how fairly one-dimensional people become romanticized in death.  Heather 1 was a terribly wicked and shallow person, but her friends clamor to pay homage to her, glossing over her misdeeds and presenting her as an angel.  The two jocks are complete brutes—violent, excessively sexual, etc.—but are glorified as tragic, star-crossed, gay lovers in death (one of the more humorous moments in the film is at their funeral, where each has a football helmet and a little red football in their caskets; the father of one of the deceased shouts, “I love my dead, gay son!”).

Heathers isn’t for everyone, but there are lots of great nuggets and one-liners to enjoy.  The script is very well-written and funny, albeit quite dark.  It’s little wonder this movie has attained a certain cult status, even though it was a box office flop at the time.

2 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Heathers (1989)

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