When it premiered, 25 years ago this spring, Heathers was a flop, unable to even recoup its $2 million budget. But it found an audience on home video, probably thanks to Winona Ryder and Christian Slater on the VHS box, and today, it's Entertainment Weekly's 5th best high school movie ever. If you graduated from high school from 1989 to 1995, and you weren't a cheerleader, you've probably got fond memories of this movie back in your brain somewhere. But does it hold up, or is it one of those things you're going to be embarrassed about liking when you were younger?
I have good news: Heathers is even better than you remember. Ryder, who had her 16th birthday on the set, is riveting in what was supposed to be her first real movie star role. Slater, who was 18 at the time, is also fantastic, even though he's pretty much doing an impression of The Shining-era Jack Nicholson. For Memphian Shannen Doherty, Heathers marked the transition from playing a kid on Little House on the Prairie to being a super famous teenager on Beverley Hills 90210.
A movie like Heathers simply couldn't be made today, for it is one of the blackest comedies ever put to film. Screenwriter Daniel Waters takes no prisoners while skewering a media and society that glamorized teen suicide while claiming to be horrified by it. Slater's J.D. wears a black trench coat and pulls out a gun in the cafeteria. This being 10 years before Columbine, he just gets a suspension. Teenage sex (including outright date rape), drug use, and arson are played for laughs. One of the reasons Ryder's and Slater's Bonnie and Clyde performances are so remarkable is that they remain pitch perfect, and even sympathetic, in an environment that is otherwise completely gonzo. Director Michael Lehmann's inventive compositions are the visual equivalent of the film's relentlessly snappy dialog. If you just remember it as a teen comedy, the film's Kubrickian precisions will be the most surprising thing upon rewatching. It's as if Mean Girls was shot like A Clockwork Orange.
Waters and Lehmann would team up again two years later for the disastrous Hudson Hawk. All great satires predict the future, and Heathers' cynical take on everyone exploiting tragedy to their own ends rings even more true today than it did in 1989. And maybe that's why Heathers seems more transgressive in 2014, where you can make all the torture porn you want, but a comedy about a couple of kids who try to blow up a school is just not going to fly. That the film is still extremely funny is just icing on the cake.