Heathers at 30: Michael Lehmann and Lisanne Falk on a cult movie for today

Greetings and salutations! Heathers (1988) is back. And at the ripe old age of 30 – a birthday some of its characters don’t get to celebrate, while others would have looked down their cute little noses at the mere thought – it’s in a sparkling new 4K restoration. The dark high school comedy/fantasy hardly made a dent on the box office back in 1988, but word of mouth turned it into a cult, meaning a much warmer reception is on the cards as it rolls out into UK cinemas over the next few weeks.

In London, along with actress Lisanne Falk, to promote the anniversary and re-release, director Michael Lehmann is surprisingly modest about the longevity of what was his second – and probably best known – movie. Talking to The People’s Movies, he admits he hoped it would find an audience long after the 80s were over. “I’m really happy that people are paying attention to the movie. That’s kind of an amazing thing. I always thought that it might hold up as one of those odd movies that you look at and say ‘wasn’t it fun that people dressed that way or talked that way?’ – you know, the way I would look at Rebel Without A Cause or something like that. But the themes of the movie are still alive and high school is still alive and dark humour is fun to see. I like to think that it might hold up enough.”

Nobody sets out to make a cult movie: it just happens over time and Heathers was set on that path by an upsurge in VHS rentals (the late 80s equivalent of going viral). Lehmann finds it difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the film’s popularity, but is convinced that Daniel Waters’ script played a key part. “Dan’s script is pretty amazing. His use of language and the whole concept is worthy of the movie having a cult status. Nobody else had written that way.” The dialogue also made a huge impression on Falk, who plays Heather McNamara in the movie. “Dan made it to stand up on its own. It’s not of its time, it’s not 80s dialogue. 80s dialogue is ‘that’s awesome! that’s rad!’ and that would have dated. It’s still so quotable and that’s what people seem to be loving – quoting the movie.”

While the film is of its day – it was released in the same decade as other high school hits such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty In Pink – Lehmann is more than aware of its contemporary relevance and resonance. Pre-dating Columbine by some 11 years, it sees J D (Christian Slater) coming close to predicting those events, something that only becomes apparent when watching the film with the benefit of hindsight. “When Columbine happened, I immediately looked to see if there was any reason to believe that those people watched Heathers or that that it was any part of their reference. It was an inevitable question and, as far as I could tell, it was not on their radar. I would never want to think that anybody would watch the movie and be inspired to commit violence and it doesn’t endorse violence in high school at all. But it has a central character who looks to use violent means to get revenge on the people he thinks are bad.”

For Lisanne Falk, it’s a revenge fantasy, one that anybody who’s been bullied will identify with. “When you’re being bullied at high school or at any point in your life, you have these fantasies which you will never express. So this is the vocalisation of your ultimate revenge fantasy and it brings it to life,” she says, adding that, from her own personal experience, today’s teenagers find it relevant to them in a number of ways. “I have a teenage daughter and I’ve been asking her friends. What they relate to most is the high school experience, the different cliques, the bullying, the friendships, the first loves and those are the parts they find the most engaging. They can laugh at the film, but it’s about how do I fit in, where do I want to be, which character is most like me and which character do I want to be.”

Given that relevance, it’s no surprise that Heathers has already been turned into a musical. This year’s TV series, however, appears to be in limbo since its March debut was cancelled and there’s been no word of a new one. The original film, however, has lost none of its bite, wit and sense of the surreal. The teenagers and their film have become cult figures and the movie itself is more than likely to continue attracting an equally devoted audience, well after it’s reached pensionable age.

Heathers is released around the UK from Friday, 10 August.

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