In this new series of reviews, I will be revisiting 1980s film classics as well as some lesser known works; and what better film to start with than Heathers? Nearly 25 years on, Daniel Waters’s screenplay remains a cult classic – dark, funny, surreal, and above all… “very”.
Heathers is set in Westenburg High School, Ohio, and starts off as many teen films of the era seem to, as an observation of the hierarchy and cliques that exist in the climate of high school society. There are the four popular girls who rule the roost (3 of whom are called Heather) which includes Veronica (Winona Ryder), our “heroine”; there are jocks, some other stereotyped groups who are dismissed as “losers” and finally, the archetypal dark, mysterious and handsome “bad boy” J.D (Christian Slater). Heather Chandler (the lead Heather, played by Kim Walker) controls the whole of the school body, casting anyone she does not like into the realms of social suicide – which brings us onto the main topic of the film. Upon meeting charismatic J.D, Veronica starts to develop a conscience and a mind separate to that of the Heathers. He intrigues her and she finds herself agreeing with his criticism of the Heathers and the way they act, suggesting that they should be given a taste of their own medicine. This leads to the first major plot twist – after a particularly nasty interaction with Heather Chandler at a frat party, Veronica breaks into her house with J.D. intending to get revenge. Against her consent, Veronica becomes complicit in Heather’s murder by way of poisoning her, an idea of J.D’s, with a concoction that Veronica thought was harmless. They cover up the death as a suicide and forge a suicide note. Somehow, Heather Chandler becomes more popular after her death and in a search for some kind of justice, further “suicides” occur at the hands of Veronica and J.D, as Veronica is more and more influenced and persuaded by J.D. However, this is not a thriller or a horror film – it maintains the genre of dark comedy throughout, even finding humour in the explosive ending.
Not only is Heathers refreshingly different to other teen high school films of the era, it is also cleverly constructed and oozing with symbolism, particularly in its use of colour schemes. Each Heather has her own colour which she wears some element of in every scene: Heather Chandler, the original lead Heather, is red; Heather McNamara is yellow and Heather Duke is green until she takes Heather Chandler’s place after the latter’s death and becomes red like her predecessor. More subtly, Winona Ryder’s character Veronica is always wearing something blue and everything in her room is a shade of blue too. This use of colour does more than distinguishes the Heathers from one another: throughout the film, scenes appear where the three Heathers and Veronica play crochet on her lawn, sometimes in dream sequences rather than reality. This, combined with Heather Chandler being always in red and Veronica always blue, appears to be an allusion to Alice in Wonderland. Heather Chandler is the Red Queen, and Veronica is Alice, stuck in a mad world of hierarchies and nonsensical rules. Like the Red Queen, Heather Chandler’s “popularity” and power is protected by how much others fear her – a much stronger force than being good and well-liked. The idea of power and colour is combined in other ways too: when Veronica decides to turn against Heather Chandler at the frat party, she is in a room bathed in red light and in the following scene, Heather Chandler is seen assessing herself in the mirror of a blue bathroom.
In many ways, Heathers is a criticism of teen films of the era – the overly stereotyped cliques, the way that every interaction Veronica has with her parents feels surreal and fake (they seem to be a parody of fond, one-dimensional, middle-class parents that feature in some other contemporary teen movies) and the trope of the popular girl falling for the dark horse who her friends and family will not approve of. Yet, although armed with well-known these tropes, Heathers is never predictable, as it subverts rather than follows them. It destroys the boundaries set by previous conventional teen films while being a delicious mix of charming, eccentric and disturbing. Nearly 30 years on, Heathers still feels fresh and topical.