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Heathers (1988)—The Only Teen Black Comedy You’ll ever need to Watch!

Heathers (1988) movie poster

Who here remembers high school? Slaving away at endless mountains of assignments, getting bullied by the popular kids, eating the cold and sloppy school lunches that made military rations taste like they were from a multi Michelin Star restaurant and of course, participating in school shooter safety drills! Ok, maybe not that (if you don’t live in America). Bottom line is, high school sucked. But! It can be worse: you could have one of your classmates secretly be a misanthropic and psychopathic killer! Case in point, the coming of age black comedy Heathers!

High school senior Veronica Sawyer (played by Winona Ryder) is in the process of joining the most popular (and ruthless) clique in high school, the Heathers, consisting of Heather Chandler, Heather Duke and Heather McNamara. Despite being “friends” with the Heathers, Veronica feels like they are taking advantage of her, specifically her ability to forge handwriting. One day, she meets her shining dark knight, Jason Dean (played by Christian Slater). The two become close after Veronica embarrasses Heather Chandler at a party, who threatens her with social homicide. Wanting vengeance, Veronica and J.D. concoct a plan to embarrass Chandler with a drink meant to make her puke. Unbeknownst to Veronica, J.D. feeds her drain fluid, killing Heather Chandler. Panicking, the two forge her death as a suicide with Veronica forging a suicide note in Heather’s handwriting. However, the forged suicide ended up making Heather even more popular as J.D. continues to manipulate Veronica to terrorize their high school. 

The Heathers and Veronica from Heathers

Heathers really flips the script on the high school teen comedy genre pioneered by the likes of John Hughes in the 1980s. You’re put in a familiar setting with the familiar friend groups (jocks, nerds, preps, cheerleaders, etc.) and you might think you know where it’s going, but that’s where it all goes down the drain. The usual trope of the popular kids getting what they deserve by the less popular kids is done for a reason and I think it’s safe to say that everyone has thought of getting revenge on their high school bullies at some point. But has anyone thought of outright murder while forging it as a suicide or blowing up your entire school? Well, I certainly hope not.

This leads me to my next point: the trope of the bad boy. One of the most popular tropes in film and television is the good girl falling for the bad boy. Pioneered by actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean around the 1950s and still prevalent today, the “bad boy” is often seen representing a sense of rebellious freedom from the shackles of society that we crave deep inside. But what people don’t understand is how destructive the “bad boy” is in real life until it is too late. When we first meet J.D., we see him how Veronica sees him: cool, mysterious and edgy. But as the movie unfolds, we (and by extension Veronica) soon learn how psychopathic he truly is. He’s manipulative, controlling and above all else, has no qualms with killing or general regard for human life. Movies frequently depict these bad boys as misunderstood or tragic figures. However, J.D. is neither misunderstood nor tragic, rather he is what the “bad boy” is in real life: someone who doesn’t deserve to be admired. Rather he’s someone to be avoided and in serious need of therapy.

J.D. and Veronica from Heathers

Speaking of which, the topic of teenage suicide is heavily discussed throughout the film. Before their deaths, Heather Chandler was Queen Mean and both Kurt and Ram were asshole jocks. But after their “suicides”, Heather was given a heart and Kurt and Ram were given depth. However, before you get any ideas that the movie is making suicide “cool”, let me assure you that it is doing the polar opposite of it. We see how the school board and media not knowing how to properly address teenage suicide and even trivializing the deaths of the students. For example, when Heather Chandler’s suicide was being discussed, the school board spent most of their time acknowledging her correct usage of the word “myriad” over what could’ve actually caused her death. And to make matters worse, there’s even a rather tasteless song sang by the fictional band Big Fun called “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)”. People who think that suicide will give them a chance in the spotlight and immortality are often mistaken: they end up as a mere statistic on the news.       

Despite its dark subject matter, Heathers managed to garner enough of a cult following that it was adapted into both a musical (which is how I was introduced to the movie) and TV series. And while the musical does follow the same storyline, it does make a few notable changes to the characters. For example, Veronica is far more outgoing and assertive and J.D. is made to be a much more sympathetic character compared to their movie counterparts. While I haven’t watched the TV series, just one look at the creative decisions and I could tell it was going in the wrong direction. For example, the Heathers are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Why was this change made? They would be on the receiving end of bullying, not being the mean popular clique in a high school setting.

Heathers is unlike any coming of age movie that I’ve seen. Balancing that fine line between social commentary and dark humor with the addition of copious quotable lines, Heathers will keep you engaged all while making you keep guessing what will happen next. Since its debut, plenty of films try to recapture the intensity and spirit of the cat and mouse game between two fake lovers all while failing (looking at you, live action Death Note). If this doesn’t speak volumes about the film’s quality, then I don’t know what will. Presenting its heavy subject matter through the lens of a teen black comedy, Heathers continues to be a beloved staple in the black comedy subgenre, whilst being gradually embraced by mainstream film fans. If you do decide to check it out, just make sure you get a slushie.

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