Director: Michael Lehmann
Screenplay: Daniel Waters
Stars: Winona Ryder (Veronica Sawyer), Christian Slater (Jason Dean), Shannen Doherty (Heather Duke), Lisanne Falk (Heather McNamara), Kim Walker (Heather Chandler), Penelope Milford (Pauline Fleming), Glenn Shadix (Father Ripper), Lance Fenton (Kurt Kelly), Patrick Labyorteaux (Ram)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1989
Country: USA
Heathers DVD Cover

In the 12 years since its initial (and brief) theatrical release at the end of the John Hughes cycle of teen comedies and dramas in the late 1980s, Heathers has not aged a bit, and its sharp satirical edges show no sign of wear or softness. If anything, the passage of time has only emphasized just how prescient Heathers was in 1989. The points it makes about the violence-prone absurdity of American adolescence are perhaps even more incisive today than they were then.

Heathers turned the '80s teen comedy genre on its head, replacing adolescent angst and prom dreams with barbed black comedy and wicked, subversive satire. The story takes place deep in the heartland, in the fictional suburban world of Westerburg, Ohio. The fundamental social hierarchy of the American high school is firmly in place at Westerburg High, with the most popular clique in school, composed of three gorgeous queen-bitches all named Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, and Kim Walker), ruling their high-school universe with ruthless tyranny. Embodied best in the lead Heather played by Kim Walker, the "popular" clique is more adequately described as "feared." The movie makes it clear that popularity has little to do with being liked and everything to do with intimidation and envy.

The youngest member of the clique, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), goes along with the three Heathers because, like them, she is pretty and wealthy and generates adulation from others. But, we immediately get the sense that she does not revel in the teenage sadism that stokes her friends so much. Veronica is savvy and intelligent, but she has an inner weakness that allows her to submit to the Heathers even when she doesn't like what she's doing.

Enter J.D. (Christian Slater), the new kid in school who smokes, rides a motorcycle, wears a long black leather jacket, and talks like Jack Nicholson. A self-styled outsider and rebel, J.D. is much like his iconic namesake, James Dean, but with a perverted, psychotic twist that ironically makes him that much more appealing. Veronica is instantly drawn to him, perhaps because he offers her something different. In a world in which everyone is immediately subsumed into some kind of generic category, J.D. willfully stands apart from the crowd; there is no one else in school like him.

J.D. quickly lures Veronica under spell and into his diabolical plans to off the students who he finds despicable, most notably the titular Heathers. The first murder is something of a happy accident, if it can be called that, and J.D. and Veronica light on the idea of disguising the murder as a suicide. This leads to a series of ironic developments in which the much-loathed and feared Heathers are suddenly raised in death to undeserved martyr status. In a single stroke, the movie drags virtually every character into its exposé of facetiousness, as teachers wax poetic about how much they enjoyed having the dead students in school and the yearbook staff prepares a two-page spread complete with reproductions of the suicide notes.

In working with J.D., Veronica essentially exchanges her submission to the emotionally sadistic Heathers for submission to the murderous J.D., and the movie gains a strong dramatic undercurrent in watching her emerge from both of these dominions, eventually coming into her own by the end of the movie. Although Veronica's name is nowhere in the title, Heathers is ultimately about how she finally learns to be her own person, even though her journey to that point racks up quite a body count.

Heathers was a first-time project for just about everyone involved, including director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters (both of whom almost detonated their careers two years later with their involvement in the Bruce Willis-Joel Silver debacle Hudson Hawk in 1991). It was also made during the waning days of New World Pictures, the independent studio that funded and distributed the movie. This combined to create an experimental atmosphere that was absolutely essential for a movie like Heathers, an environment in which the filmmakers could feel free to push the envelope and raise a few eyebrows.

The movie has all kinds of oddball details, like the fact that Veronica writes in her diary while wearing a monocle and the Heathers wile away their afternoons playing croquet, but what people really remember about the movie is how fearless it is in treading on potentially controversial territory. Truth be said, much of Heathers is in extremely bad taste, but it's so funny and so clever and so intent on its vision of teenage angst that the bad taste not only becomes utterly integral, it somehow transcends the barriers of appropriateness.

It shares the same kind of anarchic spirit that made John Waters' early movies so gross and liberating at the same time. In Heathers, the filmmakers are essentially rejecting all of the nostalgia and emotional tripe that often accompanies excursions into the world of American adolescence and laying bare the ugly undercurrents that no one wants to admit are there. Kids killing other kids because they don't like them looks sick on paper, but Heathers deals with its controversial subject matter with such style and wit that the violence is taken to another plane; it's grotesque, but it's so absurdly grotesque that you can't take it seriously.

The film is visually inventive, which goes a long way toward covering over the fact that the screenplay starts to fall apart toward the end. Cinematographer Francis Kenny alternates between bright, almost cartoonish images and dark, brooding moments that play off horror movies and psycho thrillers. It has a quick pace and a rhythm all its own, aided in great part by screenwriter Daniel Waters' fantastic twisting of the English language into his own personal brand of teenspeak that results in endlessly quotable lines.

The movie cuts close to the bone now (with incidents like Columbine) as it did then (when teenage suicide was a major national trauma), and that's what makes it work so well. It pushes hot buttons and jabs at sensitive areas to make the point that so much in life—especially the lives of privileged American teens—is just plain silly. At the same time, though, it makes the point that killing people like the Heathers is an exercise in futility because someone else will always rise up to take their place. In its darkest moments, Heathers suggests that there will always be cruelty at the top and subjugation at the bottom. The plurality of the title can be seen as relating not only to the three Heathers in the movie, but to the fact that there are Heathers everywhere and there always will be.

Heathers DVD
Heathersis also available from Anchor Bay in a special limited edition (limited to 15,000 units) that includes a 48-page full-color "yearbook style" booklet with rare photos, a 10-page full-color fold-out with photos and liner notes, and a special 8" "Heathers Rules!" ruler, all of which is packaged in a deluxe tin container (SRP $39.99).
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
SupplementsAudio commentary by director Michael Lehmann, writer Daniel Waters, and producer Denise Di Novi
Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads: 30-minute retrospective documentary
Screenplay excerpt of the original ending
Original theatrical trailer
Cast and filmmaker biographies
Distributor Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release DateSeptember 25, 2001

Heathers was initially released by Anchor Bay in 1999 in a nonanamorphic widescreen transfer that was good, but not superb. The new, THX-certified anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer of Heathers is definitely a step up. Cinematographer Francis Kearny's inventive use of color and contrast (see, for example, the highly stylized colored lighting at the college party scene in Chapter 6) is beautifully rendered with strong color saturation and deep, rich black levels. There is some grain evident in the darker sequences, but nothing distracting. The print used for the transfer looks to have been in good shape, as there are almost no nicks, scratches, or traces of dirt to be found. All in all, a solid transfer.

The original two-channel stereo soundtrack has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround with good results. David Newman's eclectic musical score is served well, especially when it moves into the hissing electronic rhythms of the suspense-thriller. The movie doesn't feature a lot of sound effects, and imaging and directionality are somewhat limited in their use. The overall soundtrack is crisp and clear, however, with a solid low end.

While the 1999 DVD was fairly frills-free, Anchor Bay has gone back and collected some good supplements for this re-issue. First up is director Michael Lehmann, writer Daniel Waters, and producer Denise Di Novi's consistently engaging screen-specific audio commentary. They discuss all the various facets of the production, including casting woes, amusing on-set anecdotes, and plenty of jokes about what they don't think in hindsight worked very well.

Anchor Bay has also produced a brand-new 30-minute documentary called Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads, a title that essentially sums up the movie's vernacular and how it views most of its characters. The documentary features new interviews with most of the major players involved in the movie's production, including stars Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, and Lisanne Falk, editor Norman Hollyn, cinematographer Francis Kenny, as well as Lehmann, Waters, and Di Novi. Everyone seems to have nothing but fond memories about making the movie, and although there is no behind-the-scenes footage except for a few still images, there are a number of interesting revelations about the movie (all of which are also mentioned in the commentary), including Waters' initial thought that Heathers would be a great project for Stanley Kubrick and the fact that Heather Graham was initially going to play one of the Heathers, but her mother wouldn't let her because she was put off by the script.

Additional supplementary material includes the original ending of the movie as it appeared in the first draft of Waters' script (Lehmann had intended to shoot it, but the studio brass at New World intervened before any footage was shot), an original theatrical trailer, and some very detailed talent bios and filmographies of the cast and crew. And, as they have on many of their other releases, Anchor Bay has been good enough to put everything on the disc in anamorphic widescreen.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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