The Perfect High School Movie Skewered a Generation — And Changed Everything

Decades later, it’s still Very.

New World Pictures
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When did the ‘80s really end? Obviously, they ended officially when the clock ticked over to January 1, 1990, but culturally, the line is a lot more blurry. Some claim they ended when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. Others think it’s even later, like when Nirvana released their album Nevermind on September 24, 1991, kicking off ‘90s grunge culture. Cinematically, an argument could be made that the ‘80s officially ended 35 years ago on March 31, 1989, when one movie made the final word in an iconic genre, turning the coming-of-age movie on its head entirely.

Heathers was a risk from the get-go. Although it boasts Batman Returns writer Daniel Waters and comedy director Michael Lehmann, it was the feature debut of both. The movie stars Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer, a former wallflower who finds herself in the ultra-popular clique known as the Heathers, consisting of queen bee Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), yes-woman Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), and ditzy Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk).

When Veronica meets the dark and mysterious J.D., her problems get far bigger than just high school drama: her teenage angst has a body count. It all builds to one of the darkest finales in teen movie history, and yet it never loses its sense of humor.

Many characters in this movie seem pulled intact from any of the John Hughes movies that dominated the years prior, but Heathers isn’t content with just lampooning coming-of-age movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Instead, it explores the darkest reaches of every character’s psyche, unafraid to broach topics like suicide, queerness, nihilism, and abuse.

At the center of it all is J.D., the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Boy. He charms Veronica Sawyer with his philosophical musings about slushies, pulls a grand romantic gesture later that night, and then pulls her into his own sadistic fantasies. Slater plays J.D. with a Nicholson-style edge and affect that makes every line equally disarming and terrifying. The viewer falls in love with him just as Veronica does, only to have his true intentions revealed only moments later.

“Veronica you look like hell” “Yeah? I just got back.”

New World Pictures

Heathers is one of the most quotable movies ever because of the unique way the dialogue flows. Phrases like “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” may sound like quirky 1980s slang, but it sounds just as strange today as it did when it premiered in theaters. That’s because Waters invented entirely new slang for the Westerburg High School students to use. It’s made every obscure line timeless, an artifact of a social subculture that never existed.

It’s hard to write any high-school-set dramedy without begging a comparison to Heathers. Mean Girls, Bottoms, and even Riverdale take inspiration from its twisted story. It was a watershed moment for the “teen movie” genre. After the release of Heathers, there wasn’t really room for a feel-good realistic coming-of-age story without feeling trite.

Thirty-five years later, Heathers is more than just a cult classic dark comedy. It’s now an integral part of the high school cultural reference pool, an ultra-violent high school horror story that reflects fears around the current teen experience as much as it did in 1989. The movie may be middle-aged, but these kids are aging like a fine wine.

Heathers is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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