The high school setting was familiar. The divide between the popular kids and the ordinary kids, nerds and outcasts wasn’t new. It was the cruel viciousness of the in-crowd and the perverse rebelliousness of the unpopular that gave the film a fervent tone of mean-spiritedness that set it apart from other films in the teenage macabre.
“Heathers” refers to a trio of popular girls named Heather who rule the school and torment the unpopular kids. Veronica is the reluctant hanger-on who doesn’t much like her friends or their behavior, but goes along with them out of a sense of obligation. When she questions their cruelty, she’s told by the meanest of the Heathers – Heather Chandler – that popularity is not for the weak.
When J.D., a mysterious and dangerous newcomer emerges at the school, Veronica falls for him and confides in him her real hate for Heather Chandler. The two join together to pull a prank on Heather for threatening to ruin Veronica’s reputation after the two girls have a heated argument at a frat party. They break into Heather’s house. Veronica wants to serve Heather a gross drink concoction to make her puke her guts out. J.D. suggests a cup of liquid draino and pours the cleaner into a cup. Veronica finds J.D.’s idea amusing, figuring it’s all in jest. Meanwhile, Veronica makes an alternate drink of orange juice and milk. While J.D. and Veronica share a kiss, Veronica mistakenly grabs the draino laced drink.
Heather, unaware of what’s in the cup, gulps back the liquid draino, and seconds after consuming it, dives head first into a glass coffee table. The gleeful surprise on J.D.’s face as he looks down at Heather’s body covered in broken glass is contrasted perfectly by Veronica’s look of frightened astonishment. The dialogue the characters exchange as they hover over Heather’s body is wonderfully sarcastic and funny. It’s this scene that introduces the film’s notion that teenage angst and rebellion have a body count, and establishes suicide as a cool thing to do. The scene also sets in motion other staged murder-suicides, ending with a few sticks of dynamite and a giant bang.
Heathers was not a commercial success at the time of its release. It found its audience later on video and cable and became one of the most notable films of the 1980s. The film was unlike other teen comedies that were so popular in the 1980s, particularly the films by John Hughes, which were lighter, sappier and sillier. The teens in Heathers weren’t archetypal like nerds trying to fit in, or ordinary girls crushing on the hot quarterback from afar, or the misunderstood loners whom no one got, or awkward, gawky girls who got transformed into hot chicks. You were either a Heather or a nobody. The film took an unflinching look at the maliciousness and cruelty of high school and showed that you were lucky if you managed to get out alive. Its influence can be seen in similar films like Jawbreaker, Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Mean Girls.