Rediscovering a classic: Heathers

Anna Stephenson 14 October 2017

cn: suicide

While much of the student population may still consider their high school years more as a wellspring of barely-suppressed traumatic memories than a source of entertainment, no one is too cool for the proverbial school when it comes to Michael Lehmann’s iconic 1988 teen black comedy, Heathers.  A relative box office flop upon release, its cult following has steadily grown, culminating in its development into a 2014 Off-Broadway musical and a 2018 television series which is currently in production.

Amongst younger generations, its fame as a film depicting the darkly humorous intricacies of institutional education has often been eclipsed by more recent and less macabre classics such as Clueless (1995) and Mean Girls (2004). Its contemporary revival, however, prompts questions of why some classics fade away like scratchy old film, destined to a fate worse than Blockbuster, and why some revitalise their appeal for a new audience facing similar social struggles with slightly smaller shoulder pads.

Starring Winona Ryder as the curiously-placed outsider-insider Veronica in a field of eponymous Heathers (an early indication that despite being part of an apparent clique of clones, she develops a separate identity throughout the film), the return of Heathers as a possible contender for Queen Bee of teen movies could mark a possible reaction against the relative optimism of more recent additions to the genre such as Mean Girls.

Although certain pressures and problems of the 1980s American high school experience can resonate today in their original form (casual sexism and slut-shaming, wittily scripted yet devastating verbal abuse, over-use of scrunchies), other issues the film covers only take on more disturbing potential with the millennial experience.

In an alarming series of events, Veronica and her rebel without a cause lover J.D. end up killing the most popular members of their high school whilst successfully presenting their murders as suicides. Unexpectedly, other students begin attempting to follow the example of the ‘in crowd’, in the mistaken belief that these students had wished to take their own lives.

Suicide becomes a warped parody of the latest trend, the ultimate status to acquire. This highly sinister representation of groupthink unfortunately remains relevant today, the social media ‘game’ Blue Whale demonstrating the even more pervasive and deadlier potential of influence and abuse via new platforms. While the new social landscape and changes in the way we interact is something Heathers could not have been aware of, the revitalisation of this classic could perhaps be because, while Heathers was released years before many of its more famous sisters in the genre, its hard-hitting yet humorous depiction of teen life was more ahead of its time.