30 Years Since “Heathers” Broke The Mould

Neal Damiano discusses why Michael Lehmann’s 1988 cult classic Heathers made an indelible impact on the high school genre and how it still has a unique presence today.

Heathers - Winona Ryder

In the 1980s, a decade of particular resonance for the teen high school movie, John Hughes celebrated the kids who were trying to fit in, while Heathers interested itself in high schoolers defiantly trying not to.

Michael Lehmann’s seminal teen classic turned 30 this year.. The tale of Veronica (Winona Ryder) and psychopath bad boy JD (Christian Slater) dealing with jocks and superficial bitches at Westerburg High School is just as shocking today as it was three decades ago.

Heathers - 30th Anniversary

Chock filled with sharp edge satire and phenomenal performances, Veronica’s slide into the dark side as she and JD kill off the popular kids including the Heathers trio enabled the film to break boundaries within the teen film genre that less courageous filmmakers would have shied away from.

What makes Heathers so fascinating is its perfect balance of exaggeration and raw honesty that you didn’t get from a John Hughes film. Hughes’ films concentrated on the teenager facing a problem and resolving it by the end. Heathers drove through the problem like a semi-wheeler. It isn’t afraid to show the dark desires teenagers sometimes feel.

Heathers deals with problems largely untouched previously such as rape, suicide, and murder. And the dialogue is legendary, one of the most quoted films in cinema.

The film is filled with little homage nods to pop culture like the character names Veronica Sawyer and Betty Finn, taken from the popular 1950s comic Archie. And then there’s the high school named after lead frontman Paul Westerburg of the popular band The Replacements.

Heathers - clique inc. Winona Ryder

Lehmann pushed the envelope as far it can go, and did it in a clever way.

The film overdoses on exaggeration, some of the scenes almost feel cartoonish. Lehmann manages to create an unbelievably likable antihero. Some might even have rooted for him. There is little gems of social messages hidden brilliantly in the satire like the oblivious parents, wacky teachers, and all three girls named Heather.

Lets talk about the influence; it may not have been truly embraced at the time of release but it has gained a strong cult following since. Heathers’ legacy can be seen in such films as Jawbreaker, Mean Girls, Clueless, An Assignation Of A High School President, Drive Me Crazy. It also influenced television shows like Glee, Popular, My So Called Life.

Heathers - Christian Slater

So what is the greatest significance of Heathers? Perhaps it’s that people embrace the dark side now, they except it and some might even thrive on it. For a film that seemed so left field in 1988, maybe now, it’s more real than much-loved hits from the decade like Pretty In Pink.

Words by Neal Damiano

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About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Avatar
    CineGirl Reply

    It’s a great film. Interestingly, it feels more on point today than ever before!

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    Roger Keen Reply

    It has a wonderful rebellious vibe.

  3. Dan
    Dan Reply

    Love your celebration of Heathers, Neal. It’s one of those stand out teen films of the 1980s that felt like it had something unique to say when compared to many of the others during the period. I think Slater and Ryder are great and I’d assume both look back on this film as one of their early career best. In fact, I’m not sure Slater has been better than he is in Heathers (maybe True Romance).

    • Avatar
      Neal Damiano Reply

      Thank you!
      It was a film way ahead of its time.

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    Rory Reply

    Nice piece Rory. How do you think Heathers rates against other dark teen dramas of the 80s like River’s Edge and Class of 1984?

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Rory,
      I’m just seeing this now, to answer your question. In my opinion Heathers is unlike any film out there and seemingly impossible to duplicate it was just so far ahead in its time. How does it compare to River’s Edge which happens to also be one of my favorite films. Two really different stories but in a lot of ways River’s Edge is exceptionally more dark because there’s no semblance of sarcasm or humor. It’s raw and something that can happen all too often.

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