Heathers: Special Edition Review
Veronica: Why can’t you just be a friend Heather, why are you such a mega-bitch?
Heather: Because I can be.
Heathers is a film created out of dissatisfaction, dripping with irritation and wry amusement at the clichéd rites of passage portrayed in countless other teen movies whilst leaning more towards acute satire than broad farce and dealing with button-pushing taboo subject matter that automatically validated its entry into the elite pantheon of cult movies, where to this day it remains a revered classic. Whilst most teen movies back in the 80s (and, indeed, still to this day) were so insipidly good natured, so anaesthetised from the pain of adolescence and so fundamentally ignorant of teenage life that it begged the question, had the filmmakers ever even gone to school? Presumably screenwriter Daniel Waters had similar thoughts and promptly set out to create a teen movie to end all teen movies.
And with this radical piece of incendiary cinema, he pretty much succeeded…
Heathers is very much emblematic of the era it was produced in, it really couldn’t have existed at any other time. By the end of 80s the nascent optimism that been in an abundance towards the beginning of the decade was fading as rapidly as the recession was expanding, the John Hughes teen comedies and their innumerable imitators were generating lower and lower box office returns and the public’s affection for the coterie of young actors who frequented these films was souring, as the press who’d once jokingly dubbed them ‘the Brat Pack’ now used it as a pejorative term, often in reference to the famous teens’ rowdy behaviour and embarrassing misdemeanours. Crucially, the thorny subject of teenage suicide had become America’s latest issue du jour, grasping the headlines and being clumsily sermonised in no end of cheap TV movies that despite their best intentions often glamorised suicide as a strangely noble exit for a troubled individual.
It was only upon my third viewing of the film that I realised what an impressive movie Heathers truly is: provocative, perhaps even verging on sensationalistic but also – and here I use a word that is generally anathema to the teen movie genre – surprisingly intelligent and even *gasp* subtle. The incisive wit still feels fresh, the colloquial lexicon Waters invented for his characters even sounds credible and most importantly of all, it’s often uproariously funny.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about Westerberg High School: it’s a secular and hostile hot-bed of gossip and discord, where the respected cliques oppress and bully the ungainly ones. At the apex of the social strata are the Heathers, a quartet of colour coordinated, despotic fashionistas who rule the roost with an iron fist and habitually degrade the fat, the fashion failures and the geeks in order to maintain their dominance. By default they are considered the ‘most popular’ clique in school, though the film is quick to convey that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to being well liked, as the Heathers are generally regarded with a mixture of fear, envy and lust. The group is comprised of Heathers Chandler, McNamara and Duke and their acolyte Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), who’s beginning to realise she might not be cut out for the sadistic social torture that the Heathers arbitrarily mete out to their inferiors. The Heathers aren’t even that contented with each other’s company: there’s an absence of any democracy or autonomous thinking within the group as Heather Chandler (Kim Basinger look-alike Kim Walker) exercises complete control over the other three, something that Heather McNamara meekly accepts whilst Heather Duke quietly fulminates and grows ever more jealous of their leader. Veronica is unsure of how to proceed; she wants out but is torn between the pleasure of being adulated by others and the possibility of being happy.
Hope comes in the form J.D. (Christian Slater) a dryly insouciant rebel who’s quick to suggest that the timely death of Heather Chandler could do no end of good for both Veronica and Westerberg’s student body. After a heated argument with Heather, a night of passion with J.D. and a mug full of drainage cleaner that Heather No. 1 unheedingly imbibes, it looks as though J.D. and Veronica’s romantic course is set to come to a dead end with a 1st degree murder charge. But J.D. hits upon a novel idea; since Veronica is an adept note forger, why not make it look like a suicide?
“People think that just because you’re beautiful and popular that life is fun” Veronica scribbles on ‘Heather’s’ note, blissfully unaware of how it will later be emblazoned on the centre page of Westerberg’s yearbook. Already guilty at having semi-accidentally murdered her best friend, Veronica consoles herself with the knowledge that Heather’s death will at least not go unappreciated by those who she tormented and even toys with the possibility that perhaps High School can be a happier place with its former dictator now irrevocably dethroned. It’s at this point that the film's pitch-perfect satire which differentiates it from being a simple macabre comedy of High School slaughter - à la Jawbreaker - kicks in. The reviled Heather is soon exalted as a martyr to the sufferance of misunderstood teens, eulogised in adoring sound-bites by those who could barely stand her presence, her suicide note used by teachers to educate students of the sensitive fragility that humanity is capable of. The upshot of the ensuing media furore is that suicide garners a trendy mystique and becomes something of a fad at Westerberg, the body count swiftly beginning to mount as J.D. reveals a penchant for carefully disguised murder and Veronica realises she’s exchanged an undesirable situation for a downright awful one.
As Daniel Waters unhesitatingly points out in the accompanying DVD extras, Heathers was not conceived as a socio-political polemic against the afflictions endured by America’s disaffected youth, but nor was it a simple High School comedy either. It was actually intended to be a 3 hour epic, chock full of barbed wit and stylistic flourishes, courtesy of Water’s ideal director Stanley Kubrick. Of course this is not what transpired, but the incipient direction provided by the then inexperienced Michael Lehman has its benefits: the visual trickery and garish colour schemes he employed feel nervy and energetic rather than gauche and cumbersome. The script still retains some quirky little pretensions, some of which feel self-consciously glib and forced whilst others are actually rather ingenious. The recurring motif of Veronica sporting a monocle whenever she scrawls her aggrieved diary entries is a little too idiosyncratic to really work, whilst the constant playing of croquet (both of the regular and the strip variety) is a masterstroke of irony – the most placid and stately sport known to man perhaps, but also the one that necessitates a particularly determined methodology of self-preservation.
In the DVDs documentary, the cast all contend that one Heather’s most notable qualities was its refreshingly frank portrayal of scholastic social hell. Granted there’s a perceptibly heightened reality within the walls of Westerberg, but there’s an equally gritty candour that adds credence to the environment. The geeks are not prince charmings beyond their train tracks and spectacles, the jocks and bullies aren’t in touch with their sensitive sides, the princesses have little compassion for the less attractive and the ugly girls certainly don’t get to attend the prom, no matter how many makeovers they undergo.
Winona Ryder gave some gloriously over-ripe and hammy performances in the likes of Dracula and The Crucible, and her patented method of acting often involves being rather whiny and ill-tempered, but here she hits the right note between being acerbically funny whilst also bringing remarkable gravitas to the role. Ryder has always maintained that Heathers is her favourite of the films in her already illustrious career, and her love for the material shows in her luminous performance. Lehman described those that saw Heathers as being divided into two groups: those who believed it to be Veronica’s movie and those who considered it to be J.D.’s. I personally reside in the former camp, but Slater does a reasonable job as the too cool to be true unruly upstart – though his laconic persona never really elicited much feeling from me. As the High School queen bitch from hell, Kim Walker certainly gave it her all in a splashy and memorably vile performance, whilst Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk are convincingly unpleasant as her two flunkies.
Yet for all its allusions to chic nihilism, Heathers remains a surprisingly didactic piece of filmmaking; a twisted morality play that denigrates suicide and strips it of its supposed allure whilst, at heart, delivering a message not all too dissimilar to that of John Hughes’s parent-lambasting The Breakfast Club: adolescence is one long protracted purgatory of despondent uncertainty that’s made infinitely more tolerable if you can just get along with each other. Unlike The Breakfast Club however, Heathers is ingenuous enough to realise how unlikely that eventuality is.
Anchor Bay released this special edition three years ago in America, now their UK branch has finally given it a belated release in Britain.
The one area where this otherwise exemplary disc falls down is in regards to the picture quality. The 1.85:1 transfer is anamorphic and has been seemingly cleansed of any major print damage; however the image is nonetheless overly soft and hazy, though the prevalence of grain is probably on account of the film’s age and shoe-string budget. It's likely that this is an NTSC to PAL transfer since there seem to be a handful of isolated, but noticeable, examples of ghosting and the image has a slightly 'blurred' look. The colours could also have done with better definition and look a little on the weak side. Still, given the vintage of the film this transfer is still reasonable and remains the best video presentation currently available.
The sound fares better. Though Anchor Bay have retained the Stereo and 5.1 audio tracks that were present on the original American release, they have – perhaps by way of recompensing for the ridiculous amount of time it’s taken for the special edition to reach these shores – included an extra DTS release. Heathers isn’t a sonically remarkable film, but the soundtracks are clear and never sound flat (even on the Stereo option).
A true affirmation of the old adage 'quality over quantity', as whilst Anchor Bay haven't provided us with an abundance of extra material, what's on offer is nothing short of excellent.
The newly produced retrospective documentary Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads is unsurprisingly self-congratulatory, but all the principal actors (the late Kim Walker excepted) are present and quick to offer more than a little candour about their experience of making the film ("It was like summer camp!" exclaims an ebullient Lisanne Falk) whilst Michael Lehmann and Denise de Novi convey the sheer agony of getting the film made in the first place. I was surprised to discover that Daniel Waters actually loved going to High School, though in this respect he appears to have been in the minority with the rest of the cast, who visibly wince at the mere memory.
The real jewel of the disc, however, is the Lehmann, De Novi and Waters audio commentary, which incorporates a good level of irreverence, blunt honesty and actual insight. The commentary isn't new (it was recorded for the 1996 Laser Disc) but it contains a wealth of anecdotes, catty wit and an obvious dislike of Ms. Doherty, whose notorious attitude is frequently alluded to. Waters still grumbles about the 'sanitised' ending that replaced his original concept, Lehmann takes pot shots at the Germans, the Heathers marketing campaign and his own directing whilst De Novi provides a nice balance between the two and keeps the conversation from getting too far out of hand.
The extract from the screenplay's original conclusion is pleasingly long and has at least one riotously nasty but brilliant joke, though I'm still inclined to prefer the filmed ending. The one featured here is much darker and has certain poignancy, but also feels rather cheap and simplistically grim.
To finish off there are some detailed and anything but obsequious biographies and a Heathers trailer that takes a worryingly innocuous and playful tone for such dark material.
Heathers has lots none of its biting wit; its pithy dialogue is as astringent as ever and for gleefully nasty fun there’s little that comes close to equalling it. Anchor Bay is to be commended for releasing such a fine DVD package for this intelligently anarchic film, as the disc’s faults are far outweighed by its strengths.