Spring is a time for rebirth; the snow melts away and we are reminded that underneath it the grass has been waiting all this time. The sun seems to come out more, or maybe we just go outside more once the weather stays above freezing long enough to warrant it. At any rate, it’s a time of newness, of things coming around again. Seeds that have lain dormant under the heavy shroud of the winter suddenly sprout, pushing their way through the soil to seek freedom and light. Things that seemed impossible scant weeks ago; greenery, not having to wear winter gloves, being able to escape room 237 in that haunted hotel high in the Rocky Mountains.. now seem inevitable.
In a sense,, it’s fitting that Heathers first arrived in the spring – thirty years ago, on March 31st, 1989. In an era when teen comedies were taking an ever-edgier turn, Heathers was the darkest yet. It was the brainchild of Daniel Waters, who’d come up with the film by asking one pertinent question: “What if Stanley Kubrick made a teen film?” Part of me now wants a remake of Ski School where it takes place at the Overlook, but until that happens, Heathers will do.
The film embodies the spring and there is much of new growth embedded into it. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is a perfect popular teen queen back in the era when John Hughes was contemporary and malls were still a thing. She orbits three ultra-popular girls, all serendipitously named Heather. Her life seems like a trap, like she’s drowning in honey; she’s extremely popular but the Heathers’ reign is held by fear, rather than love, and being the apex predator of Eighties adolescence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Then, one day the cheerfully psychotic J.D. (Christian Slater) shows up, and everything comes alive for her. Which is ironic, given how many people die because of it.
Heathers turns the popularity myth on its head and presents an alternative path, one where being awful to other people as a form of social status-seeking is unnecessary but maybe murdering the people at the top who are perpetuating the very system of status-seeking is. In that sense, maybe it has more in common with the events waiting four months down the road than you might think at first.
The meta-narrative surrounding Heathers is just as much a function as the plot. Take Winona Ryder for example. She was sixteen at the time and best known for being Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice. The problem was, her look in Beetlejuice wasn’t really an act; she described herself to Entertainment Weekly in 2014 as being “very pale. I had blue-black dyed hair.” The Cure look wasn’t really what they were looking for, but Ryder wanted the part so badly that she marched down to Macy’s and got a makeover – becoming a new person just to get the part. Her agent begged her not to take it – physically begged her on her knees – but she believed in the project enough to go out on a limb and do it anyway. Christian Slater thought he had bombed the audition to the point where he stormed out of the place where the auditions were being held and threw the script in the garbage. It’s not as though he were the only real choice, either; a young and unknown Brad Pitt also read for the part, and told Waters after the audition that he thought the script was great regardless of whether or not he got the part.
Both lead actors hovered on the precipice of not getting in and managed to come alive on the screen; the fate of the movie itself followed a similar path, and in a sense it’s not hard to see why. Horror films had spent the better part of the twenty years previous dropping any pretense at censoring themselves. You could get away with pretty much anything, if you were willing to put up with some interrogation by law enforcement authorities and some protests by ‘concerned parents’ if it was particularly nasty.
Teen comedies were not really in the same league, however, and you couldn’t get away with nearly as much. The fact that people, plural, died in the movie meant that it already had a harder time than most. We like to think of the Eighties as a sort of ‘anything goes’ decade but in truth the filmmakers got a lot of push-back during the making of Heathers. Heather Graham was supposed to be in it, but she was only seventeen at the time and her mom freaked out about the script’s subject matter and profanity. Another person who had a problem with the profanity was Shannen Doherty (Heather Duke) who strongly objected to it and resisted saying some of her more profane lines (“Veronica, why are you pulling my dick?”). Plus, her parents were also being a pain on set, constantly reminding everyone involved that Doherty was already a known actress who’d just wrapped two seasons on the TV drama Our House.
“Heathers became a bona fide sleeper hit in the Nineties, paving the way for other wicked-sharp satires of teen high school hierarchies: Clueless, Jawbreaker, Mean Girls.”
The deck was stacked from the start. Between problems on set and mainstream parents freaking out about the frank portrayal of teen suicide and murder, its little wonder that Heathers was a box-office disappointment. Disappointment might be a kind way of putting it; it cost $3 million to make and barely scraped back a million in its theater run. When it was released on VHS later in the year, however, it slowly grew what can only be called a cult following. Freed from the restraints of what audiences wanted from their theater experience at the end of the Eighties and delivered into the hands of the burgeoning alternative youth culture looking for art to mirror the angst and sarcasm they felt toward the world, Heathers became a bona fide sleeper hit in the Nineties, paving the way for other wicked-sharp satires of teen high school hierarchies: Clueless, Jawbreaker, Mean Girls. This is that same sort of stubborn growth that we see in flowers and trees when the warm weather finally comes back – that pushing through the dirt to find your freedom. Thirty years later it’s remembered as a classic, sharp and funny and willing to get visceral.
Heathers is a function of it’s time and place, above all else. Released in the spring of a year that would be remembered as another sort of spring for the world, it manages to be edgy and revolutionary all at the same time – rare for any movie, rarer still for what is essentially a teen flick.