If you haven’t seen “Heathers,” it is a work to behold. This black comedy from 1988 featuring a young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as a couple that vie for popularity and make teen suicide popular without meaning to do it. In the 25 years since its release, more and more people have been drawn to this cult classic that leads most audiences to wonder “Am I really seeing this right now?”
For comparison, “Mean Girls” (2004) features a girl tricking another into eating weight gainer bars to get skinny; “Heathers” has a girl tricking another into drinking drain cleaner as a hangover cure and then dying. Two school bullies are gunned down and their deaths are written off as a suicide between two gay lovers, they become martyrs against homophobia. This movie predates the Columbine shooting by 11 years but includes a bomb plot to blow up the entire school.
What is important looking back at the 25 years since its release is the fact that teen movies had never seen anything like this. You get the feeling that Heathers was made by a committee convinced that the teen genre needed a gritty, in-your-face reboot. The box office said that they were incorrect but every teen movie that came before it looks like a sandbox by comparison.
Movies like Fast Times At Ridgemont High attempt to address the longing, the scheming and the charged immediacy of being a teenager. In High School time is an illusion, there’s only desire. But Heathers addresses the darker part of desire, the baser aspects of adolescent ego that desperately wants to be talked about and might chose death to satisfy it. The real horror of Heathers is that no one questions the suicides, everyone assumes that the dead succumbed to their internal demons and chalked their deaths up to the price of being a teenager.
John Hughes made a career in the 80s of pointing out how similar we all are and how it’s always better to know someone before you judge them. In Heathers, no one likes themselves, much less anyone else.
It wasn’t enough to be shocking in a way that would make people look at things just a little bit differently, Heathers had to completely subvert every trope of 80s movies, and the culture of the period as a whole. Few veteran filmmakers would dare try something like this, which is why Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann were perfect for this. After 25 years, it still doesn’t seem like something that could be written, shot, and passed by studio executives anywhere in this version of reality.
No real high school has ever been this bad, but fortunately or not, art imitates life. High school is one of the first places you encounter a hierarchy and you learn to work through it, as crazy as it can be. This movie was a flop at the box office, but it’s found a following that it certainly deserves once you look back and see what it meant to the time, and what it means today as movies about the teen experience have found a new place in the hearts of viewers.