Did you know that Heathers screened in competition at Sundance? Even I wasn’t aware of this (or I’d forgotten), and I swear I’m one of the movie’s biggest fans. It’s not a fact revealed on the DVD commentary, apparently. It’s not even listed among the release dates on IMDb or Wikipedia, both of which tend to include major film festival appearances. The dark teen movie classic didn’t premiere in Park City, but following its debut in Milan, Italy, at the MIFED film market in October 1988, it went on to Sundance (then still known as the U.S. Film Festival) in January 1989, where it faced such features as Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape (winner of the inaugural audience award), Martin Donovan’s Apartment Zero and Nancy Savoca’s barely remembered True Love, which won the dramatic jury prize (nice going 1989 jury member Jodie Foster!). According to Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures, Heathers had the highest budget of the program at $3M, making it a “questionable” choice given that it was too Hollywood for the event at that time.
You can see the original guide entry for Heathers on the Sundance website, where the original festival program director, Tony Safford, describes the film as a mix of River’s Edge and Something Wild while also championing the performance of U.S. Film Festival vet Winona Ryder (she was there previously with 1987’s Salt Lake City opening night selection, Square Dance). I find no record of what date Heathers first screened at the fest, which ran from January 20 through January 29, but unless there’s some other event the movie showed at that I’m unaware of, we can claim this month as the 25th anniversary of the movie’s American debut. Am I sorry that this necessary celebration is the second post about Heathers on FSR in two weeks? Definitely not. Especially since we still need to cleanse our palette from Nathan’s claim back in April that Mean Girls is a better movie. Not one of that movie’s scenes is anywhere near as brilliant as the six I’ve selected below.
Cafeterias are the most important locations when it comes to high school movies, because almost every kind of teenager can be found there. They may not all take the same classes or hang out with the same people before, during or after school, but every kid has to eat (even those who just throw it up afterward). Following the only truly terrible part of the movie (the opening credits fantasy croquet bit), Heathers opens with an extended exposition sequence where we meet all the different social groups. Most are not named but can be identified by their appearance, whether it’s a letter jacket for the jocks or fashionable clothes for the young yuppie types or dark clothes and long hair for the stoners and freaks. I think the “geek squad” is the only one referred to by a title, not that we wouldn’t get their categorization by them almost all wearing glasses. One thing I’ve always found weird about this sequence is the lunchtime poll, which is basically just a device to get us around to all the different groups. Would the most popular clique in high school really be into something so dorky? Especially with such questions involving alien invasions rather than broader inquiries into, I don’t know, their own egos? Polls are for nerds like me. I’ve included two parts of this scene below, because if I only go with the poll montage you don’t get the best line from any movie ever.
“Greetings and Salutations”
Technically, everything taking place in the cafeteria in the first 13 minutes can be counted as a whole scene, but just before the fateful meeting of Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) and Jason Dean, aka J.D. (Christian Slater), there is a shift in location to the girls’ bathroom. So, voila, a whole new cafeteria scene to love. You’ve got Veronica reduced to a normal teenage girl with crush and a level of awkwardness aided by the stupid question and you’ve got J.D. being “cool” in the most pretentious way possible, by letting it be know that he’s into a finer sort of alcohol than a brewski, as well as classical music — and maybe jazz, too, though he could just like playing his sax to the Bach. He can almost be seen right through as trying too hard, but soon enough we do see that he’s legitimately edgy when he pulls a gun on two bullies. It’s difficult to imagine that even 25 years ago, regardless of it being pre-Columbine, that a kid in this situation wouldn’t be expelled let alone arrested and sent away.
Big Bud Dean
I’ve always been really fascinated by the adults in Heathers. There’s Veronica’s parents, who we see in repetition as having little personality, there’s the varied teachers and administrators who are the normal clueless and careless characters on high school movies and then there’s J.D.’s dad (Kirk Scott), who is perfectly one note in a way that says plenty about the bad boy’s upbringing plus his unstated and un-emoted true feelings. It’s all because of this asshole demolitions guy, who apparently killed his own wife unintentionally. Speaking of Mama Dean’s death, I’ve been making the same stupid joke through a billion viewings of this movie. After J.D. mentions that he last saw her waving out of a library in Texas, I exclaim, “she killed Kennedy!” It was funny when I was a 13, I guess. I’ve just never gotten it out of my system.
Heather Chandler’s Funeral
Two things in this first funeral scene make it better than the double wake of Ram and Kurt, which you’d expect on this list because of the famous “I love my dead gay son” line. One is the speech by Glenn Shadix (reunited with Ryder after Beetlejuice) about how kids today look for answers in “the MTV video games” rather than the Bible. The other is the succession of characters visiting Heather Chandler’s (Kim Walker) open casket, which is an interesting moment for how it shares internal thoughts of people who aren’t the narrative center of the movie. There have been criticisms with Heathers for its lack of focused perspective, and I agree that these voiceovers are all wrong for the way the story is told, but they’re still great little insights into the way these different kinds of teenagers think, about death and everything else.
I’m on J.D.’s side in the argument in this scene. How could Veronica not think they were going to really kill Ram and Kurt after what happened with Heather #1? Indeed, she was fooling herself, believing what she wanted to believe. In any event, in case we were beginning to think J.D. was not cool and really some horrible psychopath that we shouldn’t continue liking, he lights his cigarette on Veronica’s burned hand. I don’t know if that would actually work. I’ve never tried it. But it’s a very twisted kind of cool, maybe something a Robert Mitchum character would have done back in the day yet mostly a modern joke on the sorts of things we think are cool about guys like J.D. and his namesake, James Dean. A little crazy, a little tough and a little mean, all without being villainous. I knew guys almost like J.D. in high school, just not so homicidal, who thought themselves the alternative to the popular male dirtbags (the jocks or whatever they were in your school) but were really just as terrible and cruel and sexist, etc., if not worse. It’s a wonder I’ve never hated J.D. more, because those guys were my true nemeses.
“Why Are You Pulling My Dick?”
I’ve always found Heathers to be a bit too front-loaded with the memorable dialogue. Frankly, it slows down in general in the second half. But this scene between Veronica and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) brings us back with a few favorite lines, mainly Heather’s throwaway comment about her dick being pulled, and it’s also the moment I look to when I think of how underrated Doherty was as a young actress. If only she’d continued doing movies instead of heading to 90210 she might have been more respected. I don’t know if the “pulling my dick” line originates with Heathers, but it sure is funny when it shows up in other things, especially if said by a man. See Danny DeVito say it in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia here and there’s a whole sketch around it on Key & Peele, seen here.
Of course, there are a lot more great scenes in Heathers that aren’t available in handy clip form on YouTube. Fortunately, we can stream the whole thing easily via Netflix Watch Instantly or Amazon Instant Video Prime. Watch it now in honor of the anniversary and let me know your favorite scene below.