The 80’s saw a major surge in teen high school movies, largely orchestrated by John Hughes. The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Risky Business all fit into this category; so many that the genre bloated to the point of no longer being a self-contained genre. If Scream is an inversion of hackey 90’s teen comedies, then Heathers is an inversion of the John Hughes flicks of the 80’s and, though the story is largely high school drama with a dash of comedy and a spritz of romance, the darkly thrilling undercurrent helps keep the characters and story afloat. Even if only horror-adjacent, Heathers landed its own episode in Shudder’s “The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs” this season. Really, that should be the new line of demarcation for what is and isn’t horror. If Joe Bob Briggs says it’s horror, then by God it’s horror.
It’s no secret that high school movies have stayed relevant despite the ever-changing culture around high school. See also: Mean Girls. See also: Napoleon Dynamite. See also: hell, High School Musical. Despite this, there are very few modern films or shows that fit into this category. There’s Riverdale, a universal “hate-watch” show. There’s 13 Reasons Why which is incredibly boring, and when it’s not boring it’s laughably bad, and when it’s neither boring or laughably bad it’s delivering cheap thrills for shock effect, and not in the cool Saw III-VII way. Other than these, there’s not many high school-centric stories out there (I suppose there’s the upcoming Mean Girls: The Musical: The Movie, but I’ll do us all a favor and not count that one). So, what keeps Heathers firmly planted in the hearts of cinephile occultists? In my opinion, it’s because the movie is not at all what it is commonly accepted to be – a comedy.
Don’t get me wrong, Heathers is laugh out loud funny. The opening sequence of the Heathers (the characters, the ones the movie is named after, try and keep up) playing croquet with Veronica’s head as the goal spike is perfect for outlining the tone of the film and quickly introducing the archetype of the characters. The fact that 2 of Veronica’s victims are essentially killed as part of a prank is inherently funny. It’s a bit that wouldn’t be out of place in Stripes or Animal House; however, films shouldn’t be decidedly comedies based on the number or efficacy of the comedic bits therein. In fact, this is arguably exactly what makes Heathers more akin to the horror genre because, as we all know, every good horror movie has a number of good gaffs and goofs. See also: Cloverfield. See also: The Purge. See also: Get Out.
What divorces Heathers from being a comedy, in my mind, is that, while the events may be slightly heightened, they are not at all fantastical or hyperbolic. The idea of teen suicides wasn’t a dark stretch-of-the-imagination, it was a matter-of-fact observation on high school culture in the late 80’s. Likewise, as we are all aware, the idea of murderous teenagers is not a farfetched idea at all. Many people would argue that the comedic nature of the film comes from how it views these horrific events. Casual, cold, nonplussed with an air of smug apathy. I’d argue this is how nearly every modern high schooler feels today. I don’t think high schoolers are nearly as disillusioned by the idea of violence as we may like to think. This is something I’m aware of and something that Daniel Waters was also aware of when he wrote the screenplay in his mid-20s.
Truly, there’s not a whole lot of inherent power in what a film’s genre is. My point is, though, there’s a sense of dismissiveness when labeling something a comedy. We can turn off the movie and say, “wow, what a whacky turn of events” and move on with our lives and be done because what we just watched was a comedy. Horrors, those stick with you. When you turn off Halloween, you’re checking that all of your doors are locked before going to sleep. When you turn off “Child’s Play” you’re making sure that creepy doll in the basement is hidden somewhere before going to sleep. And when you turn off Nightmare on Elm Street, well you just might not be going to sleep. Horror movies stick with you and inspire action, be it big or small. Heathers does exactly that, and over 30 years later it’s stuck with people in ways that other high school movies of the 80’s haven’t, just like any other great horror movie.