The epic 80s high school tale of violence, suicide and alienation wouldn’t get made today. But its sinister themes ring increasingly true, says director Michael Lehmann
The 1988 pitch-black comedy Heathers wouldn’t get made today. Although its weirdness stands up, the twisted account of high school drama and pain in Ohio’s fictional Westerburg High School was of its time.
Starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in iconic roles as teen outcasts-turned-terminators, Heathers was brutal. But it seems that gun violence, along with homophobic slurs and casual date-rape scenes that epitomised high school life in the 80s, no longer sit well with a modern, millennial audience.
After the Parkland school shooting in Florida on February 14, and the Santa Fe school shooting on May 18, Paramount scrapped a TV relaunch of Heathers, and didn’t give an alternative release date. Paramount Network’s president Keith Cox said that following these “very dark moments,” the show was no longer suitable for its young audiences.
However, 30 years on, the daring satire still rings true to the experiences of young people today. Iconic lines such as "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw", "Lick it up, baby", and "What's your damage, Heather?" capture the timeless, emotional struggles of high school. And TV reboot or not, Heathers resonates in 2018, the year of its 30th anniversary and launch of a restored 4k version, because it unearths an enduring truth: that high school is just as dark as real life.
“(But) with all the violence and crazy stuff in American high schools, Heathers is more relevant than it ever was” – Michael Lehmann, director
The director behind the cult classic, Michael Lehmann, says Heathers wouldn’t get made today given the recent spate of gun violence, Lehmann explains.
“With all the violence in high schools and with people shooting each other in high schools, you wouldn’t really want to make a comedy about people murdering each other and pretending that it was suicide,” he says. “(But) with all the violence and crazy stuff in American high schools, Heathers is more relevant than it ever was.”
Given that the youth of today suffers many of the same problems, the enduring popularity of Heathers can also be attributed to how high school corruption and chaos has never been so well-exposed. It even hits on transgenerational dilemmas, often with a darkly satirical spin, like eating disorders, exploring sexuality and the hate for the hymn Kumbaya.
It was “ahead of its time”, says Lehmann. One particular tongue-in-cheek dialogue sticks out to him: when one of the dads of the murdered school’s jock screams, “I love my dead gay son!” at his funeral. “That’s the kind of thing that was a little radical at the time,” says the director.
Noted, Heathers covers the usual bases featured in most high school tales: bullying, counterculture, teenage angst, fitting in. But it marked a turning point for high school cinema, that until then was hopeful, rosy and nostalgic – think John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. The themes woven into Heathers with an impressive subtlety cover more darkness than thought possible at the time: violence, suicide, murder, alienation, guns, imposter syndrome, homophobia, rape. The list really goes on.
Heathers still resonates because it illustrates the “brutal, perverse and twisted” experience of being young, says Lehmann. “These things are still true for young people today.”
You’d think it would be the sadistic nature of the elite girl-gang that gave the film its name – the “Heathers” (all three ‘it’ girls are called Heather) – that makes Heathers one of the most relatable tales of high school groupthink and hierarchy ever made. But the film’s male lead watched through the lens of 2018 brings up some stark comparisons to the men of today.
Christian Slater’s “JD” is a duster coat-wearing son of a psychopath who uses his charm to lure Winona Ryder’s Veronica into a killing spree of the bullies of Westborough High. Taking the high school “bad boy” trope to the extreme, JD is an unhinged outcast who worships chaos (typified in one of the film’s best quotes, “Chaos is what killed the dinosaurs, darling").
And although his psychopathy isn’t entirely revealed until we’ve journeyed with Veronica from loved-up misfit in a Bonny and Clyde-like set-up to the shocking revelation that JD has been using her to commit murders against her better interests, it’s clear from the get-go that JD has lived his life on the fringes of society.
He mirrors the violence seeping out of many young males as a result of alienation and isolation today, including the disturbed army of women-hating men known as Incels (shorthand for “involuntary celibate”).
Much like members of the Incel movement and some young men in fringe hate groups, JD feels like society has done him a disservice. In a gut-wrenching climax as our bad boy attempts to blow up his school, he reveals why he, and Westerburg High, is so fucked up: because society is.
“Maybe I am killing everyone in the school because nobody loves me,” he gasps in a tense final monologue. “Let’s face it the only place where different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in Heaven… Seriously, people are going to look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, ‘Now there is a school that self-destructed, not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society!’”
Perhaps more noteworthy is that JD’s actions are intensified upon further dismissal and alienation of his loved ones, much like Incels, whose hate for women is a result of repeated rejection by them. As soon as JD relinquishes the love of Veronica, he wants to hurt her.
This is not to say that all isolated men are murderous psychopaths with troubled upbringings. But it shows that societal seclusion had the same symptoms in 1988 as it does now.
Take the shooting rampage of 22-year-old Elliot Rodger through Isla Vista, California, who killed six people before turning the gun on himself in 2014. And Alek Minassian, the killer in the Toronto van attack in April, who aligned himself with the Incel movement and praised Rodger.
“The thought that someone would come into a school and randomly shoot classmates was not something we were thinking about in 1987” – Michael Lehmann, director
Lehmann sees how JD’s fictional upbringing might be similar to the fractured childhoods of troubled men of today, although he doesn’t condone generalising any particular group.
“It’s the idea that someone who’s had a fractured childhood and someone who has no bases or comes from a broken family – in JD’s case his father is blowing up buildings. That kind of childhood would be a good childhood for a psychopath or murderer to have had.”
Watching Heathers in 2018 is more difficult than it was even just a decade ago. Despite impeccably funny and iconic lines, you can’t escape thinking of the agonizing pain that high school violence has recently brought to American kids.
Because of this, Lehmann doesn’t know where Heathers would fit in the culture of today if he was to make it again.
“You’d have to find some way of incorporating an awareness of the violence that is commonplace in U.S. schools. You’d have to figure out how to find an ironic and humorous take on that. It would be pretty tricky. I mean maybe somebody could do it and that would be great, but i’m not sure how you’d approach it right now.
“The thought that someone would come into a school and randomly shoot classmates was not something we were thinking about in 1987.”
Heathers 30th Anniversary will be re-released back in cinemas from August 8 and comes to Digital & On Demand August 20