80s Movie Challenge Week 9: Heathers (1988)

One of the reasons we’re doing this series is because we love the films we grew up with. It’s been a huge nostalgia trip for us and we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far. However, we’ve also tried to re-assess some of these films from a modern perspective (last week’s 9 To 5 being a prime candidate for a revisit given its evergreen message). But sometimes those films we loved, and which had a profound effect on us back then, are incredibly contrastive to how we remember them.

Jane Roberts discovers this with today’s film – an incredibly dark teen comedy which had a huge influence on the imminent 1990s but also bluntly delivers a stark message that some might struggle with today.

Warning: As well as inevitable spoilers for Heathers, this article also touches on some tough topics like high-school massacres, bullying and teen suicide.

During the 1980s, the teen movie came of age, smashing it out the park at the box office. The Brat Pack was in its ascendency, filled with the beautiful faces of Rob Lowe, Demi Moore and Molly Ringwald. John Hughes movies dominated teen fare, and the charts heaved with the sounds of the movie blockbusters of the day. Perceptive, irreverent and funny, these films resonated with millions of young people around the globe.

As the decade closed, the gloss began to slip. Members of the Brat Pack were hit by scandals and addiction, the power ballad was being clobbered by spikey dance music. The hairspray and shoulder pads heralding the Greed Is Good era were being replaced by a darker edge. And Hughes moved to producing fare targeting younger viewers, spending much of the 90s riding the Home Alone gravy train.

Into this backdrop came Heathers, showcasing the talents of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, teen stars on the cultural edge. Dainty, quirky Winona had shone in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice earlier in 1988. Slater found his breakout role alongside her in Heathers. Together they were magnetic. And Heathers was no ordinary teen comedy.

Its focus was on the harm teenage cliques and bullying can inflict upon people. The three Heathers of the title are on the surface, nice girls with privileged lifestyles. In reality, they’re abusive monsters who use their elevated social status to belittle and humiliate others, pushing many of their victims to the edge of a breakdown.

Ryder’s Veronica is within the clique, yet it sits uneasily on her inflated shoulders. Playing croquet on her lawn, we see her acquiesce to de-facto leader, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker, in a gloriously bouffant 80s perm and oversized double-breasted jacket, immortalised as a perfect corpse). It’s clear that the other three girls follow in her slipstream, existing to promote her agenda.

And that agenda is spite. You see it in the school canteen, where the gaslighting of Martha leads to her public humiliation. Humiliation that Veronica, for all her sardonic wit and academic brilliance, helps to facilitate even as she squirms inwardly at the casual harm they inflict on others. Because despite herself, she likes being one of the popular girls.

Cue J.D. and the entrance of Christian Slater’s sardonic eye roll. It’s said Slater beat Brad Pitt for the role, as Pitt was considered too nice to be convincing. J.D. is not nice. He’s complicated. He’s smart, well-read. He’s the son of a billionaire demolition expert, who lost his mother to suicide and moves wherever his father’s work takes them. He’s an armed latch key kid with a big budget, who seethes with resentment at the injustice and petty bullying he sees daily in his latest school, Westerburg High. As he says about himself, ‘Seven schools in seven states and the only thing different is my locker combination.’

There’s real chemistry between the two leads, with the enigmatic J.D. pulling Veronica in with a few meaningful glances. The film has a neat twist, in that J.D. is initially portrayed as a hero, albeit one sat on the outskirts of popularity. He’s pale, smart and has great hair. His deadpan delivery is knockout. Veronica appears as a beacon of shallowness next to his trench coat of secrets.

At first, it seems like J.D. will steer Veronica away from the awfulness of her tribe. She admits she doesn’t like the Heathers, in an early exchange:

J.D.: Is your life perfect?
Veronica: I’m on my way to a party at Remington University… No, my life’s not perfect. I don’t really like my friends.
J.D.: I… I don’t really like your friends either.
Veronica: Well, it’s just like – they’re people I work with, and our job is being popular and shit.
J.D.: Maybe it’s time to take a vacation.

Veronica is the bitch in need of reformation, J.D. is the hot stuff realigning her values. Or perhaps not. Here the film spins into much darker territory. After a disastrous evening at the party, Heather C threatens to take Veronica down publicly and ruin her social standing. Veronica and J.D. take steps the next day to prevent this, which ends up with a very beautiful corpse, intentional or not.  She’s found with a heart-wrenching suicide note saying that she couldn’t live with herself and was much more than just a pretty girl who gave handjobs. A note written by Veronica, that has the unfortunate effect of making both Heather C and suicide infinitely more appealing to the students of Westerburg High.

Veronica is conflicted by the death and its aftermath, J.D. enervated. He’s found his cause, and also his muse. He snares Veronica into his destructive web, plotting and scheming, as Westerburg High descends into recriminations, soul searching and extreme hugging. And that’s just the teachers. More students die or fail in their efforts. J.D. orchestrates it all with glee, wafting his trench coat and sending teenage hormones soaring. And Veronica realises she just wants to hang with the nice girls again.

Here in the film, there’s an interesting observation. The death of Heather C leaves a power vacuum for the role of Queen Bee. The head of the Hydra may have been removed, but another serpent always grows in its place. With a little push from J.D. up steps Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), backlit with some terrific window lighting and a fabulous red frock. Red, the colour Heather C took for herself, relegating Heather D to mint green. The cycle continues. And J.D. plots to burn it all down.

What is striking watching Heathers now is how it doesn’t feel like an 80s film. There’s no overbearing soundtrack, no signature tune to bring it to mind (we’ll not include the spoof song in the movie by Big Fun – ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It!)’). The outfits may be 80s at their most excessive, but in today’s world where retro styling is key to shows such as Netflix’ Sex Education and Riverdale, Heathers could easily be viewed as their contemporary. Visually it seems way ahead of its time, and the Heathers aesthetic filtered through into many later shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and films like The Craft and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

While the central message of Heathers concerns the damage that bullying does, I did find some of the themes sat uneasily with me, viewed through modern eyes. J.D. is a stalker, a coercive controller and a potential mass school murderer, for whom suicide is the only logical conclusion. He’s an antihero, in a very attractive package. The swagger, the smart quips, that rasping voice. He’s hot AF, if I’m being honest. And that made me uncomfortable.

Suicide is trivialised to a degree. Yes, it’s just a movie and it was rated 18. It was created in a world before cyberbullying became mainstream, and mass outpourings of shock, grief and (unfortunately) spite became commonplace in the media. There is some depth to Veronica’s reaction when she hears that Martha has tried to kill herself after years of being bullied about her weight.

She has a lightbulb moment where she realises that what she and J.D. have been doing has been glamorising something acutely horrific, that has actual human consequences. But even here, as the film spins towards its catastrophic end, she isn’t averse to both faking her own suicide and encouraging J.D.’s in order to protect herself. And again, I’m not comfortable with this.

Perhaps these are my issues, and I’m giving what is ultimately a teen scream flick too much consideration. I remember that when I first saw it, back in 1990, it felt like fresh air, a new spin on the tired teenage genre. Visually, its impact can’t be denied. Slater and Ryder were exquisitely beautiful and bad together.  And Heathers shone a huge spotlight on the insidious nature of bullying within school culture, which is not a bad thing.

I remember laughing at the smartness, the sass and the visual humour back then. This time around, my sense of moral responsibility – or simply being an adult – outweighs the vicious kicks and the teen hormones. Some of the dialogue has dated poorly, especially that relating to the LGBT community. Much of it makes you wince at how awful it is but also reflects that in some respects we have moved on in a positive way.  Heathers has its place in my 80s films. It just doesn’t have a place for me going forward.

And that leaves me a little sadder, and a whole lot older.

Join us next week as Rebecca Aulburn takes us on a fun-filled flight of fancy all the way back to the other end of the decade.

Surely we can’t be serious?

We can! And don’t call us Shirley! It’s 1980’s “disastrous” Airplane!

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