A toxic love affair, an apparent contagion of suicides at a high school and an attempt by a psychotic teenage villain to blow up the school and kill every pupil in it. Heathers, the 1988 satire starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was never just about a girl (Veronica) who can’t stand her three best friends (all named Heather).
A critical rather than a box office success at the time, it’s kept its cult status and celebrates its 30th birthday this year with a 4K restoration of the original film. It’s also been made into a successful musical – but would Heathers the movie ever get the go ahead in 2018?
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According to its makers, right from the start it was a popular misconception with audiences that Heathers was a film about teen suicide. After Veronica and JD kill ‘Red’ Heather Chandler and pass it off as suicide, it apparently inspires a spate of other tragedies in the fictional high school.
“I remember saying back in 1988 at screenings to audiences, ‘it’s not about teenage suicide,’” says Lehmann. “It’s a satire about all sorts of things, but not teenage suicide. The movie is about the general perception of teenagers and the speed at which a community is able to believe that murders are suicides. But some people – and film critics – did consider it obnoxious. They felt it was taboo – to make a comedy that even touched on the idea was insensitive and wrong.”
“No one commits suicide in the movie,” points out Lisanne Falk, who played Heather McNamara (‘Yellow Heather’) in the film. “They are murdered. Heathers is actually a revenge fantasy.”
It was director Michael Lehmann’s first feature film; he says now that Dan Waters’ script was a satirical answer to the spate of ‘coming of age’ films in the late 1980s that included Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Part of why you’d make a satire is to rile people up a bit and look at things in a different way – Michael Lehmann
“Myself and Dan Waters always knew that it would be viewed as offensive and provocative,” says Lehmann. “But part of why you’d make a satire is to rile people up a bit and look at things in a different way, so I wasn’t too bothered when people were offended or took it in a direction where we hadn’t intended it to go.”
Winona Ryder, then the rising 16-year-old star of Beetlejuice, recalls being begged by her agent not to take the part of Veronica, claiming that she’d find it hard to get roles in Hollywood after making the film. “But I would have made Heathers for free,” she declared.
Lisanne Falk was 23 years old when she was cast and counted herself lucky she didn’t need parental consent like actress Heather Graham, who, aged 16, was banned by her parents from taking the role of lead ‘Red Heather’, Heather Chandler.
“I told my agent I would do any part at all to be in this movie,” Falk remembers. “I wasn’t originally cast as a Heather, but I got the part after someone else dropped out. Those of us who auditioned loved the script and would have done anything to be in the film; those who had parents involved had more difficulties.
“Now as a parent myself, I can see some of the language and content being shocking, and perhaps I’d be worried about it all being taken literally.”
‘Unique product of its time’
The reaction Heathers provoked in 1988 was mainly amongst adults rather than the teenage audience it was aimed at. Today’s young viewers are perceived as far more sensitive to the content they watch than 30 years ago. When 1990s sitcom Friends recently became available to stream, social media users were quick to highlight its ‘out of date’ storylines, reflecting a change in social attitudes.
Perhaps Heathers could be made today if it had its main stars participating in video clips urging those affected by the film to seek help, then offering useful further resources – which is what the Netflix series about a high school suicide, 13 Reasons Why, has done. But Michael Lehmann remains adamant that Heathers as a film could not work now – and it’s not necessarily because of the associations with suicide.
“It’s because of the violence in schools now and the way it’s often presented as a response to bullying,” he says. “No one would want to make a comedy that touches on high school violence in that way.”
I think it was a perfect recipe to inspire would-be shooters – Dr Jennifer Johnston
Media psychologist Dr Jennifer Johnston of Western New Mexico University, who studies the link between media reporting of mass shootings and copycat killings, agrees with him.
“I think it was a perfect recipe to inspire would-be shooters. They chose a popular actor at the time, Christian Slater, who played a classic anti-hero. Winona Ryder was an emblem of counter-culture. The characters they played in the film represent those groups that high-school shooters often say they identify with. And it’s a film that showed what life looked like when you get to sit in judgement on those around you. I watched Heathers as a teenager in the 1980s and I’m not sure I totally understood then it was a satire."
In fact, Heathers predates the first notorious high school mass shooting, the massacre at Columbine, by a decade, but Lehmann also points out that earlier this year a planned TV spin-off show of Heathers (it included Shannen Doherty, one of the original Heathers) was pulled immediately after the Parkland shootings in Florida.
“The musical of Heathers is great and funny, but it takes a lighter view and by being a musical it can have fun. But I think this is now sensitive material,” he says, adding that originally the film had a few different endings, including one where JD (Christian Slater) did manage to blow up the school.
“We were told to change it on the basis someone might harm themselves or others after seeing it. I didn’t think at the time it was an issue, but now I would be worried.”
Lisanne Falk thinks that Heathers should be judged through the historical lens of 1988, not 2018 – though she believes it still speaks to teenagers about their place in school.
“I asked my now teenage daughter if Heathers is still relevant,” she says, “and she said what she found most relatable is that school still categorises people. So all the dynamics are still there, the debate about the hierarchy is still going on, and there are still Veronicas who perhaps think they want to be a part of it and then they find their limits and find out who they are in the process.”
Heathers was, Lehmann advocates, a unique product of its time, and should be left there.
“When I do go to screenings of Heathers, what I get asked is, ‘how did you manage to make this back then? Why can’t we do something like this now?’”
“It was a very special script, a special set of circumstances. It was possible to get it financed because of the growing home video market, that just exploded around 1987. We got lucky casting it. I personally can’t imagine anyone else apart from Winona Ryder in that part and she happened to want to do it, and she was actually exactly the right age for Veronica. It was a pretty good set of circumstances and it doesn’t happen that often.”
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