Modern horror films, slasher flicks, teen romances and satires would not exist without Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers” (1988). “Heathers” emerged at the end of the John Hughes era, putting forward an argument that for all the saccharine teen romances that end with a diamond earring or musical number, there are just as many that end, well, explosively.
As Diablo Cody said in an interview with Buzzfeed about her screenplay for “Jennifer’s Body”: “If a guy wrote a movie with the line ‘hell is a teenage girl,’ I would reject that. But I’m allowed to say it because I was one.” “Heathers,” written by Daniel Waters, is — in many ways — that movie. But at the same time, there’s an irresistible quality to Waters’ script. While “Mean Girls” may be considered the most quotable teen film, its edgier predecessor gifted pop culture with the lines “What’s your damage, Heather?” “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, do I look like Mother Teresa?” and “I love my dead gay son” — an obviously problematic but still cutting commentary of posthumous tolerance.
The film’s ability to find humor by literalizing the way high school “feels like a matter of life and death” makes it watchable today because it’s grounded in an innocence in spite of itself — after all, Columbine wouldn’t happen for another 11 years. Any attempts to update the film to today’s world obviously fall flat: In 2019 alone, eight school shootings have taken place; the disclaimer “so far” is necessitated. That modern-day “Heathers” TV reboot will likely never see the light of day. But for all its glaring flaws, “Heathers” is a teen film that makes legible the real teen experience, rather than some fantasy version. It portrays high school hatreds and the toxicity of abusive relationships by transforming a teen girl’s internalized angst into literal violence. And if that’s not proof enough, its musical adaptation also slaps.