Heathers is a satirical teen comedy about a group of high school bullies which garnered critical acclaim and cult status after its release in the late 1980s. The film's stars, Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, had strong teenage fan bases at the time.
The distributor submitted Heathers to the BBFC for classification in 1989. BBFC compliance staff, then called Examiners, saw the film as a borderline case. On the one hand the film could be described as a black comedy suitable for adults at 18, on the other, the concerning adult themes, including covering up murders with mock suicides, could be considered unsuitable for classification at all. BBFC Archives, including the film's original paper files, reveal agreement that the film was unsuitable for the 15 certificate, despite clear appeal to mid teen audiences.
Reports from the 1989 submission discuss the film's complex moral landscape and biting satire, and the degree to which teenagers may not understand this, also noting the risk of teens empathising with the film's amoral characters.
Though the first Examining team explored the possibility of refusing the film a classification entirely– given the potentially glamorous treatment of suicide and the lack of a sympathetic protagonist for teen viewers to identify with – an additional team of BBFC Examiners recommended that the work be classified 18 uncut. This would allow for an adult audience, but accommodate the film's irreverent treatment of suicide and death (including the line 'whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make'), and also the crude sex references. More information about refusing to classify is available here.
Heathers remained an 18 for many years – including on video (VHS), and later DVD.
In 2008, the film's new distributor asked the BBFC to reconsider the 18 certificate, passing the film 15, or suggesting cuts for that category, as the BBFC had introduced new classification Guidelines based on extensive public consultation during the intervening years.
Examiners concluded that modern teen audiences would be likely to understand the film's satire and humour. They also noted that the sex references, though crude, were in line with sex references classified in more recent films aimed at teenagers.
In 2018, another distributor submitted Heathers again, for the film's 30th anniversary. The BBFC Compliance team confirmed the 15 with BBFCInsight noting strong language, sex references and suicide theme as the key classification issues. Heathers continues to enjoy renewed interest with Broadway and West End musicals, and a reboot of the story as a US television series.
BBFC Education resources on other works which explore similar issues include Case Studies on 13 Reasons Why, The Edge of Seventeen and We Need To Talk About Kevin, along with this podcast on US high school shootings.