Welcome to Back to the ’80s. This recurring feature aims to take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from horror’s most beloved decade. Regardless of which category a particular film falls under, this segment will spotlight films that horror fans can appreciate for one reason or another. We will look at how some of these flicks have stood the test of time and others have not aged quite so well. Regardless of what they look like today, these efforts from the 1980s laid the groundwork for the horror genre as we know it today.
Haunted houses. Hotels. Camps. These places are all effective locations in the horror genre. Still, there are very few settings as terrifying as high school. While not a hard and fast rule, a significant amount of horror flicks surround the notion of being a teenager. One can argue this concept works well for the genre because adolescence can be scary. As we reach our late teens, we become savvy out of experience. However, we are also aware of the unknown still out in the world. And unless you are sitting at the “cool kids” table, there are few things more terrifying for the teenager than realizing his or her place in the hierarchy of high school. Or life.
Heathers is a black comedy written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann. Released in 1988, this dark satire examines the social clique of an Ohio high school. Winona Ryder stars as Veronica Sawyer. Veronica is the newest addition to the trio of most popular girls at Westerburg High. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) control the school. Heather Chandler is the ruthless Queen Bee, and nobody dares to defy her. Heather McNamara is successful in conformity. Heather Duke takes the brunt of Heather Chandler’s abuse, while secretly hoping to one day become the queen.
Like many teenage girls, Veronica pined for the life of popularity. She got her chance and is now struggling with the realization that she is better suited to not be a “Heather.” Coinciding with her oncoming lack of conformity, she is introduced to the cynical Jason Dean (Christian Slater). J.D. is a new student and an outsider to the high school hierarchy. Blooming from the thorny rose of their relationship is the demise of one popular student after another. Shielded by the cover of teen suicide, their murderous rampage uncovers the realization that there is always a new Heather ready to take another Heather’s place.
This late-eighties cult flick acutely captures the sardonic language and style utilized by the American teenager. Heathers is a precursor to the witty and self-aware teens of 1990’s horror films and television. The cutthroat students of Westerberg High have long since disposed of the John Hughes “Brat Pack.” These kids do not simply want to transcend the imposed class system to find love at the prom. Instead, their focus is on using complex strategies to keep an unequal hierarchy in place.
Winona Ryder’s star power is cemented through her portrayal of Veronica. The audience follows the story through her eyes. Her nuanced ability to be both vulnerable and observant is instantly relatable to the audience. She was once situated in the lower end of the proverbial totem pole. Her handy talent of forgery secures her a place under Heather Chandler’s wing. Veronica is able to look at life from both sides. This ability garners perspective as she begins to stray from the pack. Ryder’s strength shines in her reactions to other characters. Veronica listens to what a person has to say and then applies her own distinct, if not sarcastic, commentary.
Ryder leads the cast with J.D. becoming her partner in crime. J.D. delivers insight into the dark side of her own psyche. Christian Slater uses his deadly charismatic charms to successfully make his mark on the character. Veronica’s intelligence is well-above her fellow peers. She has become bored with the system, and Slater’s character ignites a challenge. His alternative outlook is intoxicating to someone like Veronica. She thought she knew it all. However, Veronica soon learns that different is not always better. J.D.’s viewpoint is revealed to be disturbing and toxic. And, ultimately, just another way for a powerless person to feel control. Slater reveals his sinister side in this role. His “cool guy” persona dissolves and what remains is a fraud.
Shannen Doherty anchors the supporting cast as Heather Duke. Doherty’s arch is incredibly entertaining to watch. She begins as a distressed follower and graduates to confident leader. Doherty displays an impeccable sense of comedic timing. This timing is essential considering that the issues her character faces are no laughing matter. Brought to life by Kim Walker is The Queen Bee, Heather Chandler. She is supplied with an arsenal of brutal one-liners. Lisanne Falk is surprisingly empathetic as Heather McNamara. With a self-worth amounting to zero, Falk’s performance illustrates a girl lost amongst conformity. Without a leader, McNamara has no sense of direction and succumbs to every dangerous bit of peer pressure. The remaining ensemble is comprised of clueless adults mixed with kids seeking more than what they have.
Opening the feature is a symbolic game of croquet ranking each girl’s position. Veronica is in the group but at the bottom. These girls run the school as shown in the following scene. Every social cluster comes together in the high school cafeteria. A vicious prank is played on unpopular Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) as an irrelevant poll is taken from the students. This satirical film is hauntingly prophetic as J.D. is bullied by two stereotypical jocks (Lance Fenton and Patrick Labyorteaux). He responds to the unprovoked behavior by pulling out a gun on the bullies. This foreshadows not only the theme of the film, but a climate faced regularly in contemporary society.
Waters has created a satirical look at society through the eyes of teen culture. Although Heathers was an examination of high school thirty years ago, the themes of this picture hold up well today. The observations are profoundly astute. A father believes his son committed suicide because he was seemingly gay. Veronica and J.D. question whether he would openly proclaim love for this son if he were still alive with a “limp wrist.” Additionally, suicide is used as a device to examine peer pressure. Veronica questions Heather McNamara if she would jump off a bridge if everyone else did. Heather’s response is: “Probably.”
As each scene unfolds, one thing becomes clear. The search for one’s identity is ever-changing. However, in attempting to become a “good person,” we have a tendency to put on blinders when it comes to another’s suffering. In the feature, the attempts from any adult to help is often misguided, and they consistently miss opportunities to make an actual positive change. Another moment shows a girl abandoning her friend in the hope of finding love. The friend is left in the background about to be date raped. The lack of empathy a person feels desensitizes their exposure to another in pain.
So, what’s the damage? The Swatch-dogs and Diet Coke-Heads of Heathers illustrate the destructive behaviors developed in the adolescent years. When power and physical appearance have the highest values, then compassion becomes worthless. In order for the oppressed to have control, then they must also continue the rotation of oppression. This is an endless cycle leading to the belief for some that the only way to be heard is through violence or self-destruction. Heathers is a smart film that satirizes these ideas into a voice relating to younger audiences. The setup of this 1988 film influenced the successful Mean Girls and a musical of the same name. The Paramount Network has also developed the feature into a television series. Due to horrific recent events, the still-relevant subject matter has postponed the release of the first season.
The film effectively uses a wicked sense of humor to examine the darker side of human behavior. The observer of this nature is Veronica. She becomes the embodiment of one blinded by peer pressure until able to stand up for her own beliefs. All while managing to not patronize bunny rabbits. Fans of the 1980’s horror genre will be able to look past the style in order to remember their own traumatic adolescence. The memorable quotes are hilarious. However, after the laughter and cringe-worthy reminders, hopefully a lesson or two will sink in on the importance of compassion and human worth.