"Sharply acted all round, evocatively lit in bright Eighties colour, and perfectly paced, Heathers is a technical tour-de-force."

The launching pad for several major Hollywood careers, Heathers only happened because the then teenage Winona Ryder, made bankable by Beetlejuice, fell in love with the script. "This is how it happened to me," she said. "I want to dedicate this to Julie David Allen and all the other girls who made my life hell at school." She wasn't the only teenager to react to it that way, and the film went on to attract a cult following, becoming something of a rallying cry for those on the ugly end of school bullying, those excluded from the fashionable cliques. On the surface, it's a simple revenge fantasy, elegantly executed; yet its staying power hints at something more.

Ryder's character, Veronica, isn't really an outcast; though she's uncomfortable with it, she has been adopted into the clique of Heathers who rule her high school. This rule is based upon a certain kind of glamour, conspicuous wealth, and sexual vulnerability; but more than anything it is based on ruthlessness and spite. Those who cross the clique - by saying the wrong thing or being fat - are taunted and ridiculed to the point of feeling suicidal. The all-powerful Heather Chandler sees this as the way of the world. But that way is threatened by the arrival of genuine outcast JD (Christian Slater), who doesn't care for the rules and refuses to play by them. Under JD's influence, Veronica embarks on a murderous campaign to set things right.

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The subtext to Heathers is more complicated. JD comes and goes according to the tropes of a western outlaw hero, but is only rarely observed by other people, and then only in innocuous circumstances; it's unclear how much of his dangerous behaviour is real and how much is a product of Veronica's fantasies, a means for her to set aside any guilt over her own actions. Is she really caught up in this crusade against her will? Is she really fighting the good fight, or has she fallen prey to a devilish influence? It's worth noting that the ending, altered several times to please test audiences, sees Veronica becoming top dog herself, her guilt conveniently dismissed; she may hint at a benevolent rule to follow, but nothing has really changed.

Sharply acted all round, evocatively lit in bright Eighties colour, and perfectly paced, Heathers is a technical tour-de-force. Blackly comic, it is always entertaining, and it is full of the sort of social comment which few were daring to make at the time, notably in its approach to (perceived) teen suicide. Yet its most outstanding feature has to be its script, composed in an imagined high school slang which is distinctive and yet easy to understand, inviting the viewer to become a part of the school environment. Heathers provides a sharp insight into what, for many people, are the worst days of their lives; and it does so with style.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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Being in with the in crowd may prove deadly for high school student Veronica.
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Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Michael Lehmann

Writer: Daniel Waters

Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Penelope Milford

Year: 1988

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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