Westerburg High School is dominated by three croquet-playing, party-going, geek-bullying girls all called Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk and Kim Walke), with the reluctant Veronica (Winona Ryder) in tow. But when the charismatic J.D. (Christian Slater) arrives like a storm into the school and Veronica’s life, the pair seek sick (in every sense) revenge on the Heathers.
Directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers is the cool counterpoint to teen movies. It’s Mean Girls’ meaner older sister, and Tina Fey’s 2004 hit is clearly one big homage to the 1988 classic. The two films actually share blood, as Mean Girls director Mark Waters is the brother of Heathers writer Daniel Waters. And while both movies satirise the high school hierarchy, Heathers does so with an even sharper tongue, and way more teenage death.
Waters’ acerbic script drips with cynicism, sarcasm and neologism. Heathers toys with teen slang in a way Mean Girls would later repeat, creating an alternative vernacular that gives the movie so much of its cult appeal. No aspect of high school culture is safe from the acid spat out by these witty characters, providing quotable line after quotable, unrepeatable line.
The blacker than black comedy pours particularly venomously from the mouth of Winona Ryder, whose Veronica Sawyer is a jagged jewel of a protagonist. She’s hard as rusty nails and twice as sharp, even managing to make a monocle look cool. The Bonnie and Clyde dynamic between her and J.D. is irresistibly played, with Christian Slater channeling Jack Nicholson to ferocious effect.
Fiercely funny, subversive and original, Heathers is a deserving cult classic. The film has inspired a wide range of reverential works apart from Mean Girls, including an issue of The Simpsons Comics and the song Veronica Sawyer by ’90s ska/punk band Edna’s Goldfish (covered by Reel Big Fish). Not to mention the groundwork set for cult high school gems Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Donnie Darko.
As in those cases, Heathers seems carefully crafted to appeal to the weirdos and misfits that Hollywood now systematically ignores. Everything from the soundtrack to the costumes scream out with countercultural anger. Slashing sardonically at the superficial fabric of high school existence and teenage bullying with razor-sharp fury, Heathers is not just iconic, it’s really very.