(Content warning for talk of suicide, sexual assault and homophobia)
“Heathers” (1988), directed by Michael Lehmann, is a teen dark comedy film about high school students Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) and Jason ‘JD’ Dean (Christian Slater), who murder a few of their popular classmates and stage them as suicides, starting with Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), leader of the three ‘Heathers’ at the school. While much of the humor in the film has not aged well, with jokes surrounding suicide, sexual assault and homophobia, there is still something about the film that has kept it in the public consciousness decades later.
For starters, the cinematography in the film is very well done. During Veronica’s dream sequence towards the end of the film, everything feels off. The scene is shot with a blue tint and the music is very unsettling and sounds manic, almost to reflect Veronica’s guilt and fear of JD’s mental state. JD’s unstable mind is on full display and the lighting and music surrounding him and Veronica match that perfectly. The sequence continuously gets more and more unsettling and strange until Veronica is at Heather Duke’s (Shannen Doherty) funeral and she sees Heather Chandler.
While the humor surrounding suicide has aged far from gracefully, one could argue that the film is a critique on how the media sensationalizes suicide. After the second and third “suicide,” one of the teachers at the school, Ms. Fleming (Penelope Milford), televised a schoolwide therapy session, during which Veronica leaves. She sees how the media and the school are taking a performative stance against suicide without trying to address the root of the problem.
The film could also be argued as a critique on how older generations view mental health. Later that day, Veronica walks in on her parents watching the session on the news and turns it off, scolding them for watching programs that eat “suicide up with a spoon.” Veronica tells her mother that teens are depressed because they are not being treated like human beings. Her mother in turn berates her and dismisses her feelings, essentially telling her that teens are being treated like adults and they need to deal with it. This scene shows the disconnect between older generations and younger ones when it comes to mental health.
There could also be an argument that the film shows how certain people tend to not take mental health seriously. After the schoolwide therapy session, Heather Duke goes over to Veronica’s to tell her that one of the girls who is often bullied at school attempted to take her own life but survived. While Heather laughs at the idea of “another geek trying to imitate the popular people and failing miserably,” Veronica slaps her. Later, Heather and Veronica listen to Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) try to reach out for help with her depression. Heather Duke ends up telling everyone of McNamara’s struggles, leading to her to try to take her own life. Thankfully, Veronica stops her.
Others might argue that the film is about Veronica’s struggles with her own demons and JD is just a figment of her imagination, a representation of all her hate and anger building up. At first, she does everything JD tells her to do and plays off his psychopathic tendencies as jokes and chooses to believe his lies. When she realizes that he is bad news, Veronica does whatever she can to stay away from him and resist his pull until finally she conquers him and is free from his violence.
Overall, “Heathers” is a classic dark comedy film that certainly has many flaws, but also has many charms that have kept it in the public consciousness for so long — long enough for the film to inspire multiple spinoffs, including an off-Broadway musical. While much of the film’s humor is distasteful at best and downright offensive at worst, it is still a classic that is worth a watch.