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|
|Budget||US$3 million (equivalent to $6 million today, adjusted for inflation)|
|Box office||US$1.1 million (equivalent to $2.2 million today)|
Heathers is a 1988 American dark comedy film written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann. It stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. The film portrays four teenage girls—three of whom are named Heather—in a clique at an Ohio high school.
The film 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 high critical praise, the film was not a big box office hit; it later became a cult film with high rentals and sales. 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".
Seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer is one of the most popular girls at Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio, and a member of a clique of three wealthy and beautiful girls with the same first name: Heather Chandler, Heather Duke, and Heather McNamara. Though they are the most popular students, the Heathers are loathed and feared by most of the student body. After Heather Chandler has Veronica use her skill of forging others' handwriting, to play a cruel joke on Veronica's former friend, Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock, an overweight, unpopular classmate, Veronica begins to question whether the cost of popularity is too steep.
When a new student, a rebellious outsider named Jason "J.D." Dean, brandishes a gun and fires blanks at jocks Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney for trying to bully him, Veronica finds herself fascinated with him. At a Remington University frat party that evening, Heather Chandler vows to destroy Veronica's reputation after Veronica refuses sex and then throws up. Veronica spends the night with J.D., who suggests revenge on Heather after hearing about Veronica's troubles. The next morning, Veronica and J.D. break into Heather's house for the purpose of making her vomit. J.D. serves Heather a liquid he claims is a hangover cure but is actually drain cleaner. The drain cleaner kills Heather Chandler immediately. To conceal the crime, J.D. convinces Veronica to forge a dramatic suicide note in Heather's handwriting.
Pauline Fleming, the high school guidance counselor, suggests providing grief counseling to students and teachers en masse, but is rebuffed and dismissed as a New Age flake by the principal. Interviewed by local media, several former classmates of Heather romanticize her life while avoiding mention of her cruel and vicious nature. J.D. ironically remarks that Heather is more popular dead than alive, a fact confirmed by her well-attended funeral. Heather Duke assumes Heather Chandler's role as clique leader.
Angry about being rejected by Veronica, Kurt spreads a rumor that he and Ram received oral sex from Veronica simultaneously, severely damaging her image at school. J.D. persuades Veronica to lure the jocks into the woods by promising to engage in a threesome with them, then shoot them with non-fatal Ich lüge ("I lie") bullets. When the jocks arrive in the woods, J.D. shoots and kills Ram but Veronica misses Kurt, who flees. Veronica suspects the bullets are real when she is unable to rouse Ram, but when J.D. chases Kurt toward her, she panics and fatally shoots him. Two police officers smoking marijuana in an enclosed car hear the shots and find the bodies; Veronica and J.D. barely escape by fleeing and faking sex in their car when one of the officers appears. J.D. plants items such as a Joan Crawford postcard, a gay pornographic magazine, and mineral water near the boys, along with a forged note stating the two are lovers involved in a suicide pact. While the suicide ruse works, J.D.'s plan to humiliate Kurt and Ram backfires when the boys are eulogized as martyrs against homophobia at their funeral.
Newly empowered by the apparent suicides of two more students, Pauline Fleming persuades the principal to let her lead a touchy-feely grief rally. However, this fails to prevent Martha Dunnstock from pinning a suicide note to her chest and walking into traffic. She survives, but is badly injured and mocked by Heather Duke for imitating the popular kids' suicides. Heather McNamara calls a radio show one night while Veronica and Heather Duke are listening and talks candidly about her personal problems; the next day, Duke tells the entire class about McNamara's radio call. McNamara attempts suicide by overdosing on pills in the girls' bathroom, but is saved by Veronica.
Veronica tells J.D. that she will not participate in any more murders, breaking up with him. The next day, he blackmails Heather Duke into getting the student body to sign a petition for band BigFun to play at the prom, giving her Chandler's trademark red scrunchie as a gift. Veronica refuses to sign the petition, but realises that in doing so she has become J.D.'s next target. He climbs into her room to kill her with a revolver, but Veronica uses a harness to stage a fake suicide by hanging. Assuming she is dead, J.D. confesses to having fallen in love with Veronica and he proceeds to ramble about his plan to blow up the school during a pep rally, revealing the petition to actually be a mass suicide note.
During the pep rally, Veronica confronts J.D. in the boiler room, where he is rigging explosives. She shoots him when he refuses to stop the bomb, with one bullet severing his middle finger when he curses at her. As J.D. collapses, he stabs the timer and it stops. Veronica walks out through the pep rally where students are cheering, oblivious to sticks of dynamite taped underneath the bleachers. The severely injured J.D. follows her outside with a bomb strapped to his chest, offers a personal eulogy, and detonates the bomb, the ensuing explosion lighting Veronica's cigarette. As the other students rush to the scene of the explosion, Heather Duke arrives, shocked at Veronica's disheveled appearance. Veronica then takes Chandler's red scrunchie from her and declares "Heather, my love--there's a new sheriff in town.", signifying that she is taking control of the social scene at school and that things will be very different from then on.
Since her prom date, J.D., is dead, Veronica invites Martha Dunnstock to watch movies with her on prom night. Martha, who is recuperating from her suicide attempt in a wheelchair, shows her delight by spinning around Veronica.
- 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
- Renée Estevez as Betty Finn
- Carrie Lynn as Martha "Dumptruck" Dunnstock
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.
Many actors and actresses turned down the project because of its dark subject matter. Early choices for Veronica were Drew Barrymore, Justine Bateman, and Jennifer Connelly, who turned down the role. Brad Pitt auditioned for the role of J.D., but the filmmakers rejected him because they thought he came across as "too nice" and thus would not be credible. Winona Ryder, who was sixteen 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.
Heather Graham, then seventeen, 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. 17 year-old Shannen Doherty wanted the role of Veronica, but Ryder had already 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, while 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, 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 humour, and she took herself a little seriously", while Di Novi commented that: "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.
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 94% of critics gave the film a positive review based on a sample of 52 reviews and an average rating of 7.8/10. 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." At the website Metacritic, the film earned a rating of 73/100 based on 19 reviews by mainstream critics.
Academics have likened Heathers to other films popular during the 1980s and early '90s which characterized domestic youth narratives as part and parcel of the "culture war". According to Clare Connors' scathing rebuke, Heathers reveals that conflict as arising within the heart of the American high school:
|“||On one hand, the high school serves as an icon of American democracy and longing for social justice and equality, one place in American life where every young citizen can access equal opportunity and upward mobility. On the other hand, the cultural life of high school operates as the central training ground in the ruthlessly competitive values and viciously hierarchical social structure of American capitalism. Through a series of homologies, Westerberg High School becomes a metaphor for American life and culture during the Reagan and George Herbert Bush administrations. The conflict between democratic values and the social brutalities of 1980s consumer culture resides not just at the heart of the high school experience, but at the heart of 1980s American life.||”|
According to Christine Hubbard, this conflict often leads to minimal resolution:
|“||Teens don’t really want to change the world, they just want to feel that they had some say in its construction ... Heathers ends with Veronica's establishment, not of a school social structure devoid of hierarchy, but of a kinder, gentler monarchy with the protagonist in charge.||”|
Desson Thomson of The Washington Post wrote, "Wickedly funny. In fact, Heathers 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."
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".
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New World Video released Heathers on VHS 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, with restored stereo sound. This widescreen edition was 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 first released on DVD on March 30, 1999, in a bare-bones edition.
In 2001, a multi-region special edition 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. 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.
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.
30th anniversary re-release
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.
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 film of the same name which was turned into a feature film on Showtime. 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 19th June and 4th August 2018. Its cast included Carrie Hope Fletcher as Veronica Sawyer, Jodie Steel 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.
In March 2016, TV Land ordered the series as an anthology dark comedy series set in the present day, with Veronica Sawyer who will be dealing with a very different but equally vicious group of Heathers. The series will be written by Jason Micallef and Tom Rosenberg, and Gary Lucchesi will executive produce for Lakeshore Entertainment. In January 2017 the Heathers Anthology was ordered to Series at TV Land. Original star Shannen Doherty guest stars in the pilot.
In March 2017, it was reported that the series was moved to the 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 will star 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.
- Siegel, Scott; Siegel, Barbara (1997). The Winona Ryder Scrapbook. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group. pp. 51–52. ISBN 9780806518831.
Heathers... spoofed the 1976 schlock horror classic Massacre at Central High... about a new student at a Southern California high school who doesn't like how other students are terrorized by a gang, so he decides to off the gang members one by one in gruesome fashion.
- Bowie, John Ross (2011). Heathers. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press. p. 14. ISBN 159376457X.
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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