Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Lehmann|
|Produced by||Denise Di Novi|
|Written by||Daniel Waters|
|Music by||David Newman|
|Edited by||Norman Hollyn|
|Distributed by||New World Pictures|
|Box office||$1.1 million|
Heathers is a 1989 American black comedy teen film written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, in both of their respective film debuts. It stars Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, and Penelope Milford. The film portrays four teenage girls — three of whom are named Heather — in a clique at an Ohio high school, whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of a misanthrope intent on murdering the popular students and staging their deaths as suicides.
Waters wrote Heathers as a spec script and originally wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct the film, out of admiration for Kubrick’s own black comedy film Dr. Strangelove. Waters intended for Heathers to contrast the more optimistic teen movies of the era (particularly those written by John Hughes) by presenting a realistic depiction of high school imbued with dark satire.
Heathers brought director Michael Lehmann and producer Denise Di Novi the 1990 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Daniel Waters also gained recognition for his screenplay, which won a 1990 Edgar Award. Despite positive reviews for the screenplay and performances of Ryder and Slater, it flopped at the box office but later became popular as a cult film. In 2015, it was ranked number 5 on the Entertainment Weekly list of the "50 Best High School Movies". It was ranked number 412 on Empire's list of "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". Heathers has since been adapted into a musical and a television series.
Veronica Sawyer is one of the popular girls at the fictional Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio. She is part of a popular but feared clique that also consists of three other wealthy and beautiful girls with the same first name: Heather Chandler, Heather Duke, and Heather McNamara. She has grown tired of them and longs to return to her old life with her "nerdy" friends.
One day, new student and rebellious outsider Jason "J.D." Dean pulls a gun and fires blanks on jocks Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney in response to them bullying him. Veronica observes this and finds herself fascinated. She later attends a frat party with Chandler. After refusing to have sex with a frat brother and vomiting on Chandler, the latter vows to destroy her reputation. J.D. shows up at Veronica's house, and they end up having sex outside. They express to each other their mutual hatred of Chandler's tyranny. The next morning, Veronica and J.D. break into Chandler's house. J.D. jokingly puts drain cleaner in a mug with the intention of giving it to Chandler but Veronica quickly shuts him down. She mixes orange juice and milk together instead as an attempt to make her throw up and get revenge. However, she gets the cups mixed up. J.D. notices this, and hands Chandler the mug with the drain cleaner. She drinks it, crashes through a glass table, and dies. Veronica panics but J.D. urges her to forge a dramatic suicide note in Chandler's handwriting. The school and community look on Chandler's apparent suicide as a tragic decision made by a troubled teenager, making her more worshiped in death than in life. Duke soon steps into the role of clique leader and begins wearing a red scrunchie that had belonged to Chandler.
McNamara convinces Veronica to go with her, Kurt and Ram on a double date, during which the boys end up drunk and pass out in cow manure. The following day, they spread a false rumor about Veronica performing oral sex on them, ruining her reputation. J.D. proposes that she lure them into the woods with the promise to "make the rumors true," then shoot them with nonfatal bullets. J.D. shoots and kills Ram but Veronica misses Kurt, who runs away. J.D. chases Kurt back towards Veronica, who fatally shoots him. J.D. plants material next to the boys implying that they were gay, and a note stating the two were lovers participating in a suicide pact. Veronica then realizes the bullets were real. At their funeral, the boys are made into martyrs against homophobia. Although she keeps dating J.D., Veronica is increasingly disturbed by his behavior. Martha Dunnstock, an obese student, pins a suicide note to her chest and walks into traffic. She survives but is badly injured, and she is mocked for trying to "act like the popular kids." McNamara calls a radio show one night while Veronica and Duke are listening and talks of depression in her life; the next day, Duke tells the entire school about the radio call. McNamara attempts to take her life by overdosing in the girls' bathroom but she is saved by Veronica. She tells J.D. that she will not participate in any more killings.
J.D. blackmails Duke into getting everyone to sign a petition that unbeknownst to her is intended to act as a mass suicide note. Veronica has a nightmare where J.D. kills Duke, and she sees the undead Chandler at the funeral. She wakes up and writes what appears to be a suicide note in her diary, then stages a hanging with a hidden harness around her waist to support her weight for J.D. to see as he climbs into her room with a revolver. Assuming she is dead, J.D. rambles about his intent to kill her, had she not committed suicide, and his plan to blow up the school during a pep rally. Veronica reveals to her mother that she is not dead, and at school the next day, she confronts J.D. in the boiler room while he is planting dynamite. She shoots him when he refuses to stop the bombing. As J.D. collapses, his switchblade cuts the wires to the detonator, and it stops. Veronica walks out through the pep rally while everyone is cheering. The severely injured J.D. follows her outside with a bomb strapped to his chest, offers a personal eulogy, and detonates the bomb. Veronica confronts Duke, takes the red scrunchie, and vows to change the way things are. She then invites Martha to hang out on prom night and watch movies with her; heading down the hallway while Duke watches.
- Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer
- Christian Slater as Jason "J.D." Dean
- Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke
- Lisanne Falk as Heather McNamara
- Kim Walker as Heather Chandler
- Penelope Milford as Pauline Fleming
- Glenn Shadix as Father Ripper
- Lance Fenton as Kurt Kelly
- Patrick Labyorteaux as Ram Sweeney
- Jeremy Applegate as Peter Dawson
- Em Lodge as M.C. May
- Renée Estevez as Betty Finn
- Carrie Lynn as Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock
- Chuck LaFont as Officer Milner
- Phill Lewis as Dennis
Daniel Waters wanted his screenplay to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, not only out of admiration for him, but also from a perception that "Kubrick was the only person that could get away with a three-hour film". (The cafeteria scene near the start of Heathers was written as an homage to the barracks scene which opens Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.) After a number of failed attempts to get the script to Kubrick, Waters approached director Michael Lehmann, who agreed to helm the film with producer Denise Di Novi.
In the original version of the script, J.D. successfully blows up Westerburg High, and the final scene features a surreal prom gathering of all the students in heaven. Executives at New World Pictures agreed to finance the film, but they disliked the dark ending and insisted that it be changed.
Some reviewers have discussed similarities between Heathers and Massacre at Central High, a low-budget 1976 film. Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters has stated that he had not seen Massacre at Central High at the time he wrote Heathers, but that he had read a review of it in Danny Peary's book Cult Movies, and that the earlier film may have been "rattling around somewhere in my subconscious".
Many actors and actresses turned down the project because of its dark subject matter. Early choices for Veronica were Justine Bateman and Jennifer Connelly, who turned down the role. Winona Ryder, who was 16 at the time of filming and badly wanted the part, begged Waters to cast her as Veronica. Waters at first didn't think Ryder was pretty enough, and Ryder herself commented that "at the time, I didn't look that different from my character in Beetlejuice. I was very pale. I had blue-black dyed hair. I went to Macy's at the Beverly Center and had them do a makeover on me." Ryder's agent was so opposed to her pursuing the role that she got down on her hands and knees to beg her not to take it, warning her that it would ruin her career. Eventually, she was given the role, with Christian Slater being signed to play J.D. shortly thereafter. Slater stated later that he channeled Jack Nicholson in the film.
Heather Graham, then 17, was offered the part of Heather Chandler, but turned it down. Kim Walker, who was dating Slater at the time, was offered the role instead. Graham was then cast as Heather McNamara, but her mother refused to allow her to accept the role, so Lisanne Falk was given the role instead. Seventeen-year-old Shannen Doherty wanted the role of Veronica, but Ryder had been cast, so the producers asked her to audition for Heather Chandler. Doherty was more interested in playing Heather Duke, and ended up giving an "amazing" reading as Duke which secured her the part. The producers wanted her to dye her hair blonde to match the other "Heathers", which Doherty refused, so they compromised on her having red hair.
Principal photography took place over 33 days in July and August 1988, on a budget of $3 million. Although set in Ohio, filming was done entirely in Los Angeles. "Westerburg High School" is an amalgam of Corvallis High School (now Bridges Academy) in Studio City, Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga, and John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica. The auditorium scenes were shot at Verdugo Hills High, and the climactic scene on the stairs was filmed outside John Adams Middle School. The funeral scenes were filmed at Church of the Angels in Pasadena, California, a location used in other media including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Just Married.
Michael Lehmann has called Doherty "a bit of a handful" on set, in part because she objected to the swearing in the script and refused to say some of the more explicit lines. Falk stated that Doherty "didn't have much of a sense of humor, and she took herself a little seriously", and Di Novi said: "I don't think Shannen really got what Heathers was. And that worked for us. She made that character real." When the cast first viewed the movie, Doherty ended up running out crying because the movie was a dark comedy and not the drama she was expecting.
The film uses two versions of the song "Que Sera, Sera", the first by singer Syd Straw and another over the end credits by Sly and the Family Stone. On the film's DVD commentary, Di Novi mentions that the filmmakers wanted to use the original Doris Day version of the song, but Day would not lend her name to any project using profanity.
The song "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)" by the fictional band Big Fun was written and produced for the film by musician Don Dixon, and performed by the ad hoc group "Big Fun", which consisted of Dixon, Mitch Easter, Angie Carlson and Marti Jones. The song is included on Dixon's 1992 greatest hits album (If) I'm A Ham, Well You're A Sausage.
The film's electronic score was composed and performed by David Newman and a soundtrack CD was subsequently released.
Critical reception and box office failure
The film was considered a flop when it was released, earning $177,247 in its opening weekend and ultimately grossing $1.1 million in the United States over five weeks. At the time of its release, Desson Thomson of The Washington Post wrote that the film "may be the nastiest, cruelest fun you can have without actually having to study law or gird leather products. If movies were food, Heathers would be a cynic's chocolate binge." Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and wrote that the film "is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill."
Cult success and subsequent home media
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New World Video released Heathers on VHS and LaserDisc in 1989, and it developed a cult following after being unsuccessful at the box office. It was released again on LaserDisc on September 16, 1996, as a Widescreen Edition digitally transferred from Trans Atlantic Pictures' interpositive print under the supervision of cinematographer Francis Kenny. The sound was mastered from the magnetic sound elements. The film was then first released on DVD on March 30, 1999, in a bare-bones edition. In 2001, a multi-region special edition THX DVD was released from Anchor Bay Entertainment in Dolby Digital 5.1. The DVD was released in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe, and achieved high sales. Each release included a different front cover featuring Veronica, J.D., Chandler, Duke and McNamara.
In 2004, a limited edition DVD set of only 15,000 copies was released. The set contained an audio commentary with director Michael Lehmann, producer Denise Di Novi and writer Daniel Waters, a 30-minute documentary titled Swatch Dogs and Diet Cokeheads, featuring interviews with Ryder, Slater, Doherty, Falk, Lehmann, Waters, Di Novi, director of photography Francis Kenny and editor Norman Hollyn. It also includes a theatrical trailer, screenplay excerpt, original ending, biographies, 10-page full-color fold-out with photos and liner notes, an 8 cm "Heathers Rules!" ruler, and a 48-page full-color yearbook style booklet with rare photos. The film was then re-released on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment in 2011 as a bare-bones edition 2 years after Anchor Bay
In June 2018, Arrow Films reported that Heathers would be re-released on 8 August 2018 in cinemas and on 10 September on Blu-ray, in a new 4K restoration. On July 1, 2008, a new 20th anniversary special edition DVD set was released by Anchor Bay to coincide with the DVD of writer Waters' new film Sex and Death 101. The DVD features a new documentary, Return to Westerburg High. On November 18, 2008, Anchor Bay released a Blu-ray with all the special features from the 20th anniversary DVD and a soundtrack in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. On November 12, 2019, Image Entertainment released a 30th Anniversary steelbook edition on Blu-ray. This release did not utilize Arrow Films' 4K restoration and featured new and previous special features.
Critical response and impact on pop culture
Rotten Tomatoes reports that 93% of critics gave the film a positive review based on a sample of 56 reviews both contemporary and current and an average rating of 7.73/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Dark, cynical, and subversive, Heathers gently applies a chainsaw to the conventions of the high school movie – changing the game for teen comedies to follow." On Metacritic, the film earned a rating of 72/100 based on 20 reviews by mainstream critics. Academics have likened Heathers to other films popular during the 1980s and early 1990s which characterized domestic youth narratives as part and parcel of the "culture war".
Waters created a specific set of slang and style of speech for the film, wanting to ensure that the language in the film would have "timeless" quality instead of just reflecting teen slang at the time. Much of the language made its way into the popular vernacular and the film is among the most cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as a result.
Possible film sequel
On June 2, 2009, Entertainment Weekly reported that Ryder had claimed that there would be a sequel to Heathers with Slater coming back "as a kind of Obi-Wan character". However, Lehmann denied development of a sequel, saying, "Winona's been talking about this for years — she brings it up every once in a while and Dan Waters and I will joke about it, but as far as I know there's no script and no plans to do the sequel."
In 2010, Heathers was adapted into a stage musical directed by Andy Fickman. Fickman also worked on the musical Reefer Madness, a parody of the anti-cannabis movie of the same name which was turned into a feature film. The Heathers musical, which opens with a number depicting Veronica's acceptance into the Heathers' clique, received several readings in workshops in Los Angeles and a three-show concert presentation at Joe's Pub in New York City on September 13–14, 2010. The cast of the Joe's Pub concert included Annaleigh Ashford as Veronica, Jenna Leigh Green as Heather Chandler, and Jeremy Jordan as J.D.
The musical played at off-Broadway's New World Stages with performances beginning March 15, 2014 and an opening night on March 31. The original cast of the Off-Broadway production included Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica Sawyer, Jessica Keenan Wynn as Heather Chandler, Ryan McCartan as JD, Alice Lee as Heather Duke, and Elle McLemore as Heather McNamara. It closed on August 4, 2014.
An Off-West End production of Heathers, directed by Andy Fickman, played at The Other Palace in London with performances between 19 June and 4 August 2018. Its cast included Carrie Hope Fletcher as Veronica Sawyer, Jodie Steele as Heather Chandler, Jamie Muscato as JD, T’Shan Williams as Heather Duke and Sophie Isaacs as Heather McNamara. It transferred to the West End in September 2018, playing in Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. A high school production of the musical is the focus of "Chapter Fifty-One: Big Fun" episode of Riverdale.
In March 2016, TV Land ordered the series as an anthology dark comedy series set in the present day, with a very different Veronica Sawyer dealing with a very different but equally vicious group of Heathers. The series was written by Jason Micallef and Tom Rosenberg, and Gary Lucchesi was the executive producer In January 2017 the Heathers Anthology was ordered to Series at TV Land. Original star Shannen Doherty guest-starred in the pilot.
In March 2017, it was reported that the series was moved to the then upcoming Paramount Network. Selma Blair has a recurring role in the series. A trailer for the rebooted series was released in August 2017. The series stars Grace Victoria Cox as Veronica Sawyer, James Scully as J.D., Melanie Field as Heather Chandler, Brendan Scannell as Heather Duke, Jasmine Mathews as Heather McNamara, Birgundi Baker as Lizzy, and Cameron Gellman as Kurt. The series was set to premiere on March 7, 2018, but on February 28, 2018, it was announced that the premiere would be delayed in light of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
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We probably would have liked [Heathers] even better if we hadn't seen much the same story before as 1976's Massacre at Central High... Heathers replaces Massacre's fascistic male clique with a femme one but otherwise clones the earlier flick pretty closely.
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I [Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters] had most definitely not seen [Massacre at Central High], but I do remember reading about it in the beloved book Cult Movies by Danny Peary... so I guess it was rattling around somewhere in my subconscious.
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