How very good was 1988 high-school black comedy Heathers?

It’s awkward to our post-Columbine sensibilities, but this hilarious, dark and weird cult teen movie shows why Winona Ryder was destined to be a star

Heathers, the 1988 high-school black comedy, got turned into a musical a few years back, and this summer it travelled to London’s West End. A good time then to revisit the original film – which is exactly what one smart distributor is doing, releasing the movie into UK cinemas this week. The film suffered bad box-office karma back the in late 1980s – it wasn’t a hit (though it did acquire cult status on video) – so perhaps the publicity around the musical will nudge people back to the original source.

Which would be a good thing because Heathers jumps off the screen: this is a savage, witty, impeccably stylish act of subversion against some of the rosier clichés of the teen pic. Set in an Ohio high school, the film takes its name from the three most popular students in senior year: a trio of affluent, glamorous girls, each called Heather. The Heathers are all smiles, big hair and even bigger shoulder pads, but the poise of perfection disguises spiky cruelty.

The clique is domineering, conniving and ruthless in maintaining its elite position in the school, but their fourth member Veronica (Winona Ryder) is beginning to question the cost of their popularity following a particularly ugly practical joke played on an unfortunate fellow student.

It’s a world familiar from countless high-school pictures from the 1950s onwards: a hierarchy of nerds, cheerleaders, goths, outsiders and jocks that is as tightly defined and status-obsessed as that of any Renaissance court. American high schools were possibly like that at the time of Heathers’ production but director Michael Lehmann makes no attempt at naturalism. This is a film of creamy artifice and woozy theatricality: the sets are garish, the dialogue arch and self-conscious: “How very” is a preferred expression of enthusiasm in Heathers-speak.

Hassled in the cafeteria by two bullying jocks, JD calmly pulls a gun from his jacket and fires blanks at his would-be tormenters

Shrugging off the requirements of documentary-style realism lets Heathers works on other, richer levels. It’s at once a satire on the pressure to conform in Reagan-era America; a daringly cynical take on the mass psychology of suicide cults; a twisted mash-up of horror film and teen romance and convincingly gripping psychological thriller. The film is Lehmann’s debut and it’s a triumph of tonal control – which is as well because things quickly become very dark and weird.

Veronica hooks up with new student JD (the initials don’t stand for James Dean but they might as well for the all attitude of rebel nonchalance that Christian Slater brings to the role). And from the off JD demonstrates a novel way of dealing with the school’s suffocating culture of conformity: hassled in the cafeteria by two bullying jocks, he calmly pulls a gun from his jacket and fires blanks at his would-be tormenters.

Thus begins a killing spree, engineered by the increasingly psychotic JD, with Veronica a reluctant accomplice. One of the Heathers is tricked into drinking drain cleaner, her death then disguised as suicide (a book by Sylvia Plath provides the inspiration); then the school’s two star footballers are shot by JD and Veronica, who make the crime scene appear like a suicide pact between two gay lovers. Initially swayed by JD’s cool – as well as channeling James Dean, Slater draws heavily on the libidinous charm of Jack Nicholson – Veronica turns on him, which cranks up the already torrid atmosphere into a climax involving fake hangings, suicide jackets and gunfights in a basement.

Sadly the film’s irreverent take on school violence does leave an uncomfortable note in these post-Columbine days. But mostly this is gleeful nastiness crafted with jagged irony and with a captivating performance by Winona Ryder at its centre that reminds you why she was such a big star of the late 1980s and early 1990s. How very.

Heathers is in cinemas from August 16