Heathers wasn’t particularly well received when it was first released in 1988, but has recently reached the iconic status of a ‘cult classic’. It also has a kick-ass musical with some of the best music ever that’s going to be on Broadway very soon (and you have no idea how excited I am about that). I can totally see why. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater on a quest of murderous revenge against the popular kids and what they represent in society complete with fast witty dialogue and croquet – what’s not to love?
The answer is not much. The writing is quick and clever with many iconic lines that have found their way into my own idiolect (“What’s your damage?” and “How very” being amongst those) and the main characters are engaging, if not necessarily likable. Veronica is a particular triumph of characterisation, with just the right amount of black humour (“If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host.”) and unimpressed bewilderment to make the audience root for her despite the fact that she, y’know, kills people. Throw in a dash of 80s fashion (mmm those shoulder pads) and you’ve got yourself a classic.
In fact, as is the case with many of my favourite films, it’s the characters that make this film. Christian Slater does a delightfully creepy turn as Jason Dean (apparently modelled on Jack Nicolson), somehow mixing ‘sociopathic killer’ with ‘kicked puppy’ in such a way that – while you’re never in any doubt he’s anything less than crazy – you can’t help but want to give him a hug, and Lisanne Faulk’s Heather McNamara is nothing short of adorable. For a rollercoaster plot involving death by drain cleaner, a red power scrunchie and multiple people all named Heather it’s the more genuine and low-key interactions between the characters that really bring the film to life, and the ending with Martha Dunnstock honestly melted my heart.
It’s not a film to watch if you’re easily offended, with some of the dialogue straying very close to the risqué (“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”), but then 80s teen films have had a wonderful irreverence that their modern counterparts have never quite managed to capture. There’s just something about them that has a casual confidence; they’re not out to please anyone, they just want to tell a good story. Most modern films try too hard to get us to like them, throwing in explosions and 3D effects and more straight white love triangles than you can shake a stick at. Heathers doesn’t care. Heathers just wants to tell you about homicidal teenagers, and boy does it do that.
There is one major failing of the film that cannot be ignored, however, and that is Kim Walker as Heather Chandler. Chandler is supposed to be the ultimate Queen Bee, the embodiment of every high school bully, the kind of girl even the Pope would want to bitch slap. But Kim Walker’s not scary. She’s not mean. Even the greatest and most iconic line in the entire film, “Well fuck me gently with a chainsaw!”, is delivered reluctantly after an obvious hesitation. It’s a testament to the great writing that the film suffers only a little for it, but when the entire plot hinges on Heather Chandler being mythic bitch it doesn’t work when she seems like the kind of girl you could easily meet in church on a Sunday.
But, as I said, the film still works – it works very well. Heathers is the kind of film that stays with you after you’ve watched it, and isn’t that really the mark of a successful movie? And it’s not just the enjoyment factor – Heathers teaches you life lessons too. Namely not to tell a loner in a trenchcoat who shows up in your garden in the middle of the night that you wish your best friend was dead, because you might just get what you wish for…