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 the film to contrast the more optimistic teen movies of the era, particularly those written by John Hughes, by presenting a cynical depiction of high school imbued with dark satire.
Heathers premiered on January 21, 1989 at the Sundance Film Festival, and was theatrically released in the United States on March 31, 1989 by New World Pictures. Despite being a box office flop, the film received critical acclaim and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. For his screenplay, Waters received the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. It has since become popular as a cult film and is regarded as one of the greatest coming-of-age films of all time. Heathers has since been adapted into a musical and a television series.
In Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio, Veronica Sawyer 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. However, she has grown tired of them and longs to return to her old life with her "nerdy" friends. Veronica becomes fascinated with Jason "J.D." Dean, a new student and rebellious outsider, after he fires blanks on Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney in response to them bullying him. She later attends a frat party with Chandler, but refuses to have sex with one of the members and vomits on Chandler. In retaliation, Chandler vows to destroy her reputation. J.D. arrives at Veronica's house, and the two have 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, where J.D. puts drain cleaner in a mug for Chandler but Veronica dismisses his plan. She mixes orange juice and milk together instead, as an attempt to make her vomit and get revenge. However, J.D. hands Chandler the mug with the drain cleaner, killing her. 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 even more worshiped in death than in life. Duke soon steps into the role of the clique's 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 and then shoot them with non-fatal bullets. J.D. shoots and kills Ram but Veronica misses Kurt, who runs away. J.D. chases Kurt back towards Veronica and kills 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. 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, a frequent target of bullying, pins a suicide note to her chest and walks into traffic. She survives but is badly injured and mocked by her peers. Later, McNamara calls a radio show to discuss her depression; the next day, Duke tells the entire school about the radio call. McNamara attempts suicide 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 and breaks up with him.
J.D. blackmails Duke into getting the students to sign a petition that unbeknownst to her is intended to act as a mass suicide note. Later, Veronica fakes her suicide to trick J.D., who assumes she is dead and reveals his plan to blow up the school during a pep rally. The next day, she confronts J.D. in the boiler room while he is planting dynamite. She shoots him and his switchblade cuts the wires to the detonator. J.D. follows Veronica outside with a bomb strapped to his chest, offers a personal eulogy, and detonates the bomb, killing himself. Veronica confronts Duke, takes the red scrunchie, and asserts herself as the new leader. She then invites Martha to spend prom night watching movies together, as Duke watches on.
- 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 began writing the screenplay in spring of 1986, while he working at a video store. Waters wanted the film 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 he met through a mutual friend. Lehmann 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. Winona Ryder, who was 16 at the time of filming and badly wanted the part, begged Waters to cast her as Veronica, even offering to work for free. 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. Christian Slater reports throwing a "big tantrum" and tossing his script in the trash after assuming he'd bombed his audition. He was signed to play J.D. shortly after Ryder was cast, stating later that he channeled Jack Nicholson in the film.
Heather Graham, then 17, was offered the part of Heather Chandler, but turned it down due to her parents' disapproval of the film. Kim Walker, who was dating Slater at the time, was offered the role instead. Lisanne Falk, 23 years old at the time, lied and said she was in her late teens during the audition. It was only after she was cast that she revealed her true age. 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", but Doherty refused, so they compromised on her having red hair.
Principal photography took place over 33 days in February and March 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 ran out crying because she realized 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
Heathers was released to the public in March 1989, at which time New World Pictures was going bankrupt. 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
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 2001, 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, as well as 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.
Reception and legacy
On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 93% based on contemporary and retrospective reviews from 57 critics, with an average rating of 7.76/10. 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 has a weighted average score 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 the film, titled Heathers 2, 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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