Dark comedy and horror go hand in hand. It’s not uncommon for a horror film to have a biting wit about it, and let’s be frank, if a comedy is earning its laughs by killing off its characters, it’s got one foot in the horror scene to begin with. The discomfort that can run through comedy and horror is an element that works well in both genres, so it’s really no surprise that the two run together so easily.
When we look at Heathers, we see a milestone in dark comedy and in stories about high school. Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters weren't afraid to take on the messy relationships that exist between teenagers: the way the best friend and the worst enemy can be one and the same, they way teens communicate with one another and with the world around them, and the fact that regardless of generation, all teens roam through life with guide posts that are sadly ineffective and out of date.
Heathers stands as the mountain against which we compare all other films of this nature and it went on to inspire and pave the way for a number of other stories. What follows is just a handful of films that travel the path that Heathers tread 30 years ago. They all share common threads and an examination of them shows just how impactful the 1989 film was. Spoiler warning!
Jennifer’s Body: Karyn Kusama’s 2009 film Jennifer’s Body carries a lot of the Heathers DNA—its examination of the high school hierarchy, the transition of supposed best friends to “frenemies” and then to archnemeses, and the use of snappy lingo and dialogue, just to name a few. Most interestingly is the examination of the way the respective high schools and communities deal with tragedy and loss among the student body. In Heathers, we see the community of Sherwood, Ohio, coping with what they think are a sudden rash of suicides. Devil’s Kettle, the small town setting of Jennifer’s Body, begins by mourning the loss of several students the night the local bar burns down, and continues to meander through sorrow as several more students turn up dead as the result of Jennifer’s newfound powers.
Though true tragedy strikes in both stories, the noteable thread common in both films is the way the communities have no idea how to properly mourn the deceased. Flowery group therapy sessions are designed by overly ambitious teachers, stories of the truth of each death is embellished while making saints out of the deceased and heroes out of the undeserving. Finally, this mourning period leads each story to find its own hilarious post-tragedy song; in Heathers, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)” was topping the charts, while in Jennifer’s Body, Low Shoulder’s “Through the Trees” became the anthem of Devil’s Kettle.
Both films find humor in the fact that when tragedy strikes, nobody is particularly prepared to deal with it. As the films point out, it is far too easy to create an atmosphere that is more focused on the grief process itself than it is about healing and moving beyond it.
Assassination Nation: Though not nearly as playful, and sporting a much harder edge, this film carries a similar theme to Heathers in that they both contain characters who embrace anarchy as a means of acting out. After engineering a couple of individual “suicides” in Heathers, J.D. (Christian Slater) decides that his final statement must be something far more grand, and decides to blow up the high school during a pep rally. In Assassination Nation, the entire hack that is at the heart of the story turns out to be perpetrated by the most unlikely character: Lily’s (Odessa Young) younger brother, Donny (Caden Swain), who declared that he did it “for the lolz.”
The acts are committed with little to no sense of purpose, outside of the gratification of the perpetrating characters. J.D. feels that he is doing the world a favor, and Donny has the equally sociopathic motivation of doing it for pure entertainment. The anarchy at play is not intended to be anything more than a self-serving whim.
Interestingly, the events in both films are committed by male characters and assisted (in a way) by female involvement. In Heathers, Veronica is at first in on the joke with J.D., not realizing how far he would push them, and in Assassination Nation, Lily is commenting on and spreading the leaked information until she, too, is affected by it.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999): Let’s be honest—in movies, death is either tragic or pure entertainment. As horror fans, we know this. And in Drop Dead Gorgeous, it’s a little of both. Though the offing of teenagers is innately distressing, this film approaches the matter with a sense of lighthearted fun. Much as in Heathers, it uses these deaths and attacks against its characters as a way of shaping some of the more ridiculous (and funny) aspects of its story.
Drop Dead Gorgeous touches on the absurd in its premise: a small-town beauty pageant finds itself under threat by a mysterious someone set on ruining the event and taking out a number of the contestants. In theory, this pageant is a minor event—it is set in a rural, Midwestern town and is sponsored by a cosmetic company, so at best, the winner can hope to aspire to higher-level competitions. But for most of these girls, this is just a fun activity to participate in.
Much like in Heathers, when the characters/competition start getting offed, the script finds a way to do it in a lighthearted manner that maximizes the humor, but never really dehumanizes its characters. Most of the entertainment is to be found in the surviving characters’ reactions to the strangeness going on around them and their ability (or lack thereof) to properly process death.
In Heathers, we hear a number of inner monologues during the funeral scenes showcasing just how disconnected and self-serving the student body is. In Drop Dead Gorgeous, despite the fact that multiple contestants and their family members have been attacked, the town insists on labeling the acts as “accidents.” The film hilariously delivers the denial while the pageant gets more and more dangerous (and delightfully ridiculous).
All Cheerleaders Die: Heathers set the standard for the popular girl clique in high schools. Sure, there have been mean girls since the dawn of time, but the film’s wit shone a new light on this power structure and how it affects the people at the top and at the bottom. All Cheerleaders Die (written and directed by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson) subverts the notion of the popular crowd when the nerdy gothy Wiccan girl, Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), has to join forces with the cheerleaders following a night of magic gone awry. After a horrible accident that leaves the cheerleaders on the brink of death, Leena calls on her witchy powers to breathe new life into their now undead bodies. Because this power leaves the cheerleaders connected with her, Leena suddenly finds herself at the top of the high school food chain. In other films, this might lead to Leena altering herself or changing in some way to fit in, but here, she is the same badass, Wiccan girl she always was, just now more aware of the power that she holds.
This is illustrated spectacularly when the girls engage in the classic slow-motion walk down the hallway on the first day of class. Where Leena might once have been one of the many students lining the walls, watching as the girls paraded by, she is now striding confidently at the head of the pack—black eyeliner and all.
Tragedy Girls: Tragedy Girls mirrors Heathers in the value that it places on social currency. In Heathers, it’s about the ability to rule the school, to take the top spot on the popularity pyramid. In the 21st century, now it’s all about clicks. McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) aren’t remotely concerned with their place in the cafeteria, but the number of likes and follows that the Tragedy Girls brand gets is of the utmost importance.
Tragedy Girls looks at life as a teenager through the lens of social media (and through some deeply twisted psychoses). While the Heathers girls ruled the school through parties, snide remarks in the cafeteria, and a physical presence, McKayla and Sadie turn their attention to their online presence. In the end, it’s all about how much attention the characters are getting, but the social media component puts a distinctly modern spin on the notion.
Jawbreaker: Much like in Heathers, Jawbreaker uses satire to explore the horrific world of the high school hierarchy. When a birthday prank gone wrong leaves their best friend dead, Courtney (Rose McGowan), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Julie (Rebecca Gayheart) have to cover up the secret of their wrongdoing and proceed as if nothing happened. One piece of Courtney’s master plan is to win over the mousy Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and overhead the girls talking about the deed. As a means of controlling her, Courtney decides to mold Fern into the high school’s latest “It Girl.” Where before, she was less than a wallflower, Fern is now experiencing popularity and prestige for the very first time. And what better way to best your enemy than by keeping her close and giving her the attention and spotlight that she has only ever dreamed about?
When Courtney feels her control over Fern waning, she vows to ruin her, just like Heather Chandler vowed to ruin Veronica the night of the frat party. When you cross the most dangerous girl in school, you have to be prepared to fight.
In case you missed them, check here to catch up on all of our "Heathers Week" special features celebrating 30 years of the iconic dark comedy!