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Review: Heathers – “Probably the greatest teen film ever made”

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Heathers to this day remains probably the greatest teen film ever made, a film that for so many reasons could not be made now. In fact, it’s amazing that the filmmakers got it through then without much interference from anyone. It will be interesting to see what the reaction of some younger critics will be, because it’s not at all politically correct (although it’s also not a mean-spirited film), with date rape jokes, gay jokes, teen suicide jokes and the whole blowing up the school angle. In fact, it’s been adapted for the stage as a musical since, and the scene where J.D. shoots kids in the cafeteria is long gone.

It still pushes boundaries today. Winona Ryder plays a slightly nerdy girl, Veronica Sawyer, who is adopted by the Heathers, a group of popular girls who run the school. Their abusive attitude puts them in the crosshairs when Veronica meets a mysterious new student, J. D. (Christian Slater), and their high-school world turns upside down as students start dropping dead in ways that look like suicide—but are they?

The film has its flaws—there’s a scene in the forest area outside the school that goes on for far too long. However, it’s a film that perfectly turns the John Hughes teen film aesthetic on its head (although Hughes’ films are a lot darker than many people recognised at the time). Although it can certainly be read as a critique of Hughes, everyone involved was also very much a fan of his work. It’s also one of the great anti-Reagan films, with high school portrayed as this massive capitalist structure with a cruel hierarchy that mirrored what was going on at the end of the 80s. It’s in good genre company with other films like They Live! and Society satirizing Reaganomics.

The script was, unbelievably, originally written for Stanley Kubrick (who never read it) by Daniel Waters. Let’s just say Dan was ambitious and as far as he knows Kubrick never saw the finished film. Eventual director Michael Lehmann had just gotten out of film school and pleaded to direct it after Kubrick’s team never responded. When it was released, it was not exactly a critical success. Overall the reviews were good, but Roger Ebert and several other influential critics panned it. It played well in major cities, but hardly anyone else saw it until it became a major video hit. It quickly drew a large cult following which still persists to this day. And while plenty of ‘80s films have survived, Heathers really has had a legacy, including a cult musical that is still widely performed (and a TV show that died almost immediately). The musical differs in that Veronica appears to be fooled and coerced in the film, but is more of an active partner in J.D.’s scheme in the musical which is truer to Dan’s intentions.

It’s still laugh-out-loud funny and I still laugh at the lines even though I’ve seen it dozens of times and that’s down to Dan’s script. My own personal favourite lines are “Who does he think he is…Bo Diddley?” and “Save the speeches for Malcolm X, I just want to get laid.” but there are many. Ryder and Slater are perfectly cast and have never been better although both have done great work since. It’s not just the leads the supporting cast from the various Heathers to the school bullies to Penelope Milford as Ms. Fleming who does a healing session after the first “suicide” are so perfectly chosen.

It’s a film that has had several lives, and I hope the re-release doesn’t get some overly political correct condemnation but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did by some critics. If it does those critics clearly just had a brain tumour for breakfast. Heathers was the teen movie that the ‘80s really needed—a film that threw a grenade into the portrayal of high school in American cinema. It became a far more influential film than the Hughes film they were satirizing with Donnie Darko, Jawbreaker, Juno, Brick, the recent Thoroughbreds and Dan Waters’ own brother Mark’s Mean Girls have more than a shade of Heathers‘ bloodstained lipstick about them.

HEATHERS 30th Anniversary 4K Restoration is released in UK cinemas from 8th August and on digital and on demand from 20th August.

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