Heathers: 20th High School Reunion Edition

Heathers: 20th High School Reunion Edition (1989)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Trailer, DVD-ROM

In the 1980s, the teen movie market was dominated in one corner by the libidinous sexcapades of the "Porky's" franchise and its various knockoffs and in the other by the uplifting but socially idealistic fairy tales of John Hughes. Arriving at the end of the decade, Michael Lehmann's "Heathers" skewered the popular culture's rosy view of teenage life by tackling very real and tragic situations head on. "Heathers" does not concern itself with puppy love, school girl crushes, or unsatisfied sex drives. It is quite literally about surviving high school. Taking a darkly satirical spin on such subject matter as teen suicide and murder, the film pushed the envelope further than any teen film before or since and remains to this day a highly relevant commentary on the cutthroat world of high school and the ways in which human tragedy can be exploited for personal gain.

Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is a member of the most powerful clique at Westerberg High, a position that she does not feel entirely comfortable with. Although all of their families are wealthy, Veronica seems immediately separated from the other three girls in her circle. She is beautiful, but clearly less high-maintenance than the others. While the others relish in spreading false rumors about the school's fat chick and conducting superficial lunchtime polls, Veronica buries herself in her diary where she spews her unspoken resentments. The most obvious difference, of course, is that the other girls are all named Heather, a clear indication of their generic interchangeability. Fed up with their sarcastic condescension and snobbish exclusiveness, Veronica finds herself drawn to Jason Dean (Christian Slater), the brooding rebel who watches disinterestedly as the Heathers make the lives of the rest of their classmates miserable.

When Jason, or J.D. (no doubt a nod to author J.D. Salinger), suggests presenting Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), the clique's leader, with a special drink to make her sick, Veronica gleefully complies. His underlying sadistic leanings, revealed earlier when he fires blanks at a couple of jocks, result in Heather being poisoned with liquid drainer. To cover up the manslaughter, Veronica forges a suicide note in Heather's handwriting. The subsequent response at school is one of unexpected hypocrisy as students express sorrow and compassion for a student they clearly despised before. Meanwhile, J.D. seductively draws Veronica into his increasingly nihilistic worldview where murder can be justified by the right circumstances (or at least, the appearance of them).

"Heathers" may be one of the blackest of high school satires. Forsaking the long held myth that the teen years are the happiest time of one's life, the film paints high school as a veritable hell where the only way to alleviate suffering is by making others suffer more. Take the film's first 10 minutes in the school cafeteria. This scene, much like the groundbreaking shower scene in "Carrie" (the two films would make a wicked double feature), perfectly lays out the social landscape of high school society. All of the social groups are gathered in one place, but their utter separateness and disdain for one another is palpable. The social hierarchy is so structured that even within the general groups (popular kids, geeks), there are divisions. For instance, the stoners are undesirable, but the loner fat girl is subhuman. The stockbroker's son is significant, but the Heathers are royalty.

This bitterly pessimistic view extends to the film's violence, which is treated with the same casualness with which the characters in the film, both teen and adult, greet it. After Heather Chandler's death, the school faculty holds a meeting to discuss how long the students should be dismissed from school. The principal decides one hour should be enough, though he admits that he would be willing to give them half a day off had Heather been a cheerleader. Scenes like this make it impossible for the viewer to develop any sympathy for the characters, but that seems to be exactly what screenwriter Daniel Waters intended. Waters originally conceived the film as a project for Stanley Kubrick (a lofty goal considering that this was his first screenplay), and "Heathers" certainly exhibits the moral detachment of a Kubrick film—comparisons with "A Clockwork Orange" are not out of place.

One reason the film works so well is because it has a very definite point of view. The darkness does not exist for its own sake or simply to appear edgy, but to bring out a stinging indictment of societal attitudes toward violence. As the ensuing tragedies unfold at the school, the social order changes as once inferior students rise to the top and those with power start to break down. Death becomes a convenient instrument through which both teenagers and adults can propagate their agendas. Happiness in this twisted vision of society is defined by the appearance of power and depth, and if it takes suicide to achieve this then so be it. That suicide can become a fad and popularity comes with death speaks of the illusion that ultimately is popularity.

The movie also works because of Waters' careful and truthful examination of contemporary teenagers. His dialogue sharply satirizes teenage vernacular in ways that are both shocking and hysterically funny. Years before "Clueless" and, more recently, "Juno" introduced popular teen catchphrases, "Heathers" inspired some choice quotes that ranged from the harmless ("How very") to the politically incorrect ("Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?") to the downright nasty ("Why are you pulling my dick?"). The talented, young cast is more than able to pull these lines off. Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, and Shannen Doherty expertly capture the smug bitchiness of the Heathers, while Christian Slater oozes a seductive sleaziness that makes him at once repulsive and oddly attractive. The film belongs to Winona Ryder, however, who provides a believable moral center to counter the film's cynicism. She embodies teen angst with raw energy and genuine emotion, making Veronica's sometimes extreme actions convincing and relatable. Without her, the film's overwhelming bleakness would become moot.

Anchor Bay has released "Heathers" in a new 2-disc 20th Anniversary edition. It appears that there is not much difference between this new release and their previous edition from 2001. I have not seen the older edition, but from what I have gathered, the transfer on the new release is exactly the same as the previous one. The film is delivered in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The print looks quite good, with frequently bright colors, especially reds, and good black levels. There is some grain visible during some scenes, particularly during the closing credits, and the image has a somewhat flat appearance. Much of this can be attributed to the film's low-budget status. Some restoration is in order, but the transfer is pretty solid, with no dirt and few visible artifacts.

Audio is delivered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. "Heathers" is mostly dialogue-heavy with some extended action at the climax, so it certainly doesn't demand much from the soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and audible, music is presented nicely, and sound effects are distributed reasonably in the surround. It does the job, and there's really not much else to say. Optional English captions are included.

On Disc 1, the film is accompanied by the same audio commentary from the previous edition. Featuring director Michael Lehmann, writer Daniel Waters, and producer Denise Di Novi, the commentary is entertaining and informative. The trio never stops talking, and they make plenty of irreverent comments along the way to keep in tone with the film.

Disc 2 starts off with the only new feature on this special edition, a 21-minute featurette called "Return to Westerberg High." Lehmann, Waters, and Di Novi granted new interviews for this special, but there is next to nothing here that was not covered in the commentary or the previous release's featurette, which is also included here. The main interest in this featurette is some brief commentary on how "Heathers" holds up post Columbine. They also address the tragic deaths of two of the film's cast members.

"Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads" is the 30-minute featurette from the 2001 edition, featuring interviews with Lehmann, Waters, and Di Novi, as well as other cast and crew members, including Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. This is generally more interesting than the newer featurette, especially for the input from the cast. It is also fun to see clips from Lehmann's student film, "The Beaver Gets a Boner." Once again, there is some overlap from the commentary, but this is definitely worth viewing.

A theatrical trailer follows, and as a DVD-ROM feature, a scripted version of one of the film's original endings can be accessed as a PDF file. Many people over the years, including the filmmakers, have lamented that this unfilmed ending, which is much darker than the one that made into the film, was shot down by New World Pictures. Although I may be in the minority, I must say that I prefer the ending that was ultimately used. The alternate one featured here spells out the film's themes a little too blatantly for my taste and, in my opinion, does not stay true to Veronica's character.

As far as double dipping, my advice to owners of Anchor Bay's 2001 release is to skip the upgrade. The sole new feature offers very little of interest that is not already covered in the older special features. This 20th Anniversary edition is still very good in its own right, and the film is certainly worth owning, but the previous edition is perfectly fine as well.

With the state that American teenage life is in now since the Columbine shooting, "Heathers" may be more pertinent than ever before. Ironically, it is a film that would likely never find backing from a major studio today. Its comedic use of violence was always difficult for some people to swallow, and the film's shock value has probably grown since its 1989 release as our society has become increasingly sensitive toward depictions of high school violence. It remains, however, one of the greatest high school movies ever made. With its unapologetic bleakness and ferocious sense of humor, it is a film that is as smart as it is entertaining, and it keeps us laughing against our better judgment.