Throwback Thursday: Is Heathers the Antithesis of a Happy High School Film?

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Last week we looked at the upbeat musical version of a new student hitting a high school in Grease. This week we’re going to focus on the dark side of that experience with the satiric, somewhat ironic 1988 Heathers.

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It’s good to have pull quotes, but no one wants to read that much on a movie poster.

On one side of the ring, we have the popular mean girls, three Heathers (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannen Doherty) and a Veronica (Winona Ryder). On the other side, we have the charismatic loner who is new to the school, J.D. (Christian Slater). As Veronica tires of the Heathers’ attitudes, she’s drawn to J.D. and the dangers of non-conformity that he represents. The film takes a dark turn when J.D. and Veronica accidentally kill one of the Heathers. Hoping it will incite a change of the status quo, it ends up simply changing the pecking order of the remaining Heathers. As Veronica falls deeper down the rabbit hole, she begins to realize that J.D. is the mad Captain Ahab trying to kill his white whale (society), and she is the sailor, Ishmael, at his crazy mercy. (Wow, Alice in Wonderland and Moby Dick in one sentence. Sorry about the mixed metaphors).

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The Heathers and Veronica.

The film’s dark, bitter spin on high school cliques was unique at the time. It makes fun of fads, conformity, and everything else in the high school experience. Most of us know what it’s like to wish someone were dead: Heathers gives us a taste of the satisfaction of destroying the big bully. That is until another one steps in to fill the void.

The performances are uniformly fun to watch, with Winona Ryder coming into her own as a leading actress and Christian Slater doing his best “almost” Jack Nicholson impression. All three Heathers play their parts to a T. Lance Fenton and Patrick Labyorteaux as the leading jocks provide the right balance of menace and cluelessness.

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Is cow tipping really a thing?

The costuming and set design enhance the character development well. The lead characters each have a color palette, with Veronica in blues and grays, Heather Chandler in reds, Heather Duke in greens, Heather McNamara in yellows, and J.D. in black. At crucial moments, the lighting focuses on the featured character’s signature color and enforces the gut response we have to these colors. I won’t spell it out for ya: you can draw your own conclusions.

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J.D. woos Veronica over slushies.

Of course, being a cynically unconventional teen movie made it incredibly hard to market. Heathers ended up being a box office failure but found new life as a cult classic on home video and was even turned into a 2014 stage musical. Its dark, subversive outer shell actually holds a soft sweet center: high school is rough for everyone, but do your own thing, and be honest with yourself and others, and you’ll find people to support you. This is a must-see for fans of high school movies, especially if you want the experience to bring a little more bite.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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  2. Garrick Dietze By Garrick Dietze

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