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DVD SAVANT

Heathers
20th High School Reunion Edition (2-Disc)


Heathers
Anchor Bay
1989 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date July 1, 2008 / 19.97
Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Penelope Milford, Lance Fenton, Patrick Labyorteaux, Carrie Lynn.
Cinematography
Francis Kenny
Production Design Jon Hutman
Film Editor Norman Hollyn
Original Music David Newman
Written by Daniel Waters
Produced by Denise De Novi
Directed by Michael Lehman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1989 Heathers was the cynical cutting edge for teen satire, and a launch vehicle for the acting careers of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Young writer Daniel Waters broke from previous teen comedies by going completely dark & profane, giving "teen angst a body count." Previous 1980s shows like Fast Times at Ridgemont High added sex to the mix while continuing to examine real teen issues like drug use and part time jobs. Heathers creates a not-very-exaggerated fantasy of a high school where the 'cool kids' terrorize the less privileged, and where showing a heart or a conscience is social suicide. Heathers is often wickedly funny, mainly due to Waters' acidic script. Almost every line of dialogue is a quotable zinger.

Synopsis:

Westerburg High senior Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is disillusioned with her exalted status as one of the "Heathers", a vicious social clique formed around Heather Duke (Shannen Dougherty), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). The group lord it over students without social advantages and base their cruel jokes and ruthless behavior on a supremely selfish sense of entitlement. But Veronica is drawn toward transferee Jason "J.D." Dean (Christian Slater), a charismatic loner on a black motorcycle. J.D. encourages Veronica to break free of the Heathers' petty tyranny. The only problem is that when Veronica expresses her desire to kill the horrible Heather Chandler, J.D. is more than willing to make her wishes come true.

Heathers's central premise hits the nail squarely on the head. Everyone remembers the cliques of high school girls that seemed to have the power to date whoever they wanted and destroy the social standing of whoever they opposed. The Heathers are beautiful and rich, and they mask their insecurities by picking on helpless folk like Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn), an overweight girl they call Martha Dumptruck. The high school jocks administer brutal punishments and sexual humiliations to less popular students, while spreading lies about imagined sexual encounters with the Heathers. High School in Heathers is a horror concentration camp; even when writer Waters exaggerates, the emotions are dead-on accurate.

His script goes in two directions at once. Veronica Sawyer's growing sense of personal decency and outrage leads her to question the Heathers' code of conduct. Veronica prefers the company of a meek classmate and rebels when Heather McNamara expects her to have sex with college boys at a Frat party. Then cool outsider J.D. comes into the picture. In the key scene, Veronica toys with the idea of making Heather gag on a rigged hangover cure. J.D. has every intention of tricking the girl into drinking drain cleaner. Unaware that J.D. is in deadly earnest about the "joke", Veronica becomes an inadvertent accomplice to murder. Her relationship with J.D. is a lethal team effort: Veronica is in denial of her desire to kill, and J.D. uses Veronica's desire to justify his murderous actions. It's a sick symbiosis not that different from the death pacts dreamed up by real high school killers. The only difference is that Heathers is supposed to be a dark fantasy.

Waters' other issue is the cult of teen suicide, a trend distorted by the media into something glamorous. "Loser" students magically become teen celebrities in death, motivating other confused and depressed kids into killing themselves as well. Veronica and J.D. are shocked when their victims become even more popular, their personalities distorted by eulogies and TV coverage.

The chemistry between Winona Ryder and Christian Slater keeps this unpleasant revenge comedy on the rails. Unlike the less mean-spirited Rock 'n' Roll High School, we don't want the entire student body to be blown up by J.D.'s explosives. We stop rooting for the murderous lovers the moment when J.D. morphs into a garden-variety psycho. Veronica learns to respect her schoolmates as individuals with feelings. In the cynical context of Heathers, that's a major victory for the forces of light.

Once again, a young screenwriter makes his mark by setting his cultural clock a few minutes into the future -- the "unthinkable" violence of Heathers would soon become a horrible reality at High Schools and colleges. One can't watch J.D. threaten two abusive jocks with a gun he's smuggled into school, and not think of the impression that Heathers might make on media-damaged young minds. I'm sure I entertained similar violent fantasies against my grade-school enemies, but societal restraints stopped me from even "thinking" them as real possibilities. Heathers is definitely progressive, but it's not the kind of movie a young filmmaker can take home to show to mother.  2

Nineteen years down the line, Heathers still has teeth but some of the direction seems off. The scenes with Veronica's parents and J.D.'s dad are flat and obvious. Many in the cast are actual teens, as opposed to the twentysomethings usually seen in teenpix, and many contribute weak line readings. Director Michael Lehman is a hotsy USC director in the tradition of Bob Zemeckis and Kevin Reynolds, whose killer student films propelled them into the radar of actors looking for hot talent. Clearly working with a limited budget, Lehman keeps his visuals fresh and helps his inexperienced cast with their attitude-heavy line readings: "Grow up Heather. Bulemia's so '87." "Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?" "I love my dead gay son!" "Well, f___ me gently with a chainsaw."

Good art direction and clever costumes also make Heathers stand out from the crowd; Ryder's eccentric fashions are always a treat. Cinematographer Francis Kenny mostly avoids New World's late-80s look of electric blues and reds, seen in pictures like Vamp.

Shannen Dougherty is the most notable of the Heathers, and at age 18, delivers her lines with withering condescension. Glenn Shadix followed Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice to play a creepy minister at a series of funerals, giving Heathers a visual link to The Loved One. Lance Fenton and Patrick Labyorteaux are the profane jocks from hell that are enshrined as homosexual martyrs at their double funeral.


Anchor Bay's DVD of Heathers is a slight update from their 2001 releases. The good transfer looks more or less the same and a second disc has been added to carry a pair of long-form docus. The new show has some good input from writer Waters, director Lehman and producer Di Novi, who also contribute a full commentary. But it is missing the actor input seen in the older piece, which sort of puts the damper on the party. New World's effective original trailer is on board along with a DVD-ROM extra, a screenplay excerpt of the original ending.  1

Anchor Bay has tied this reissue of Heathers in with a new picture that reunites Winona Ryder and writer Daniel Waters. Sex and Death 101 is about a guy (Simon Baker) who gains access to a list of all the women he's made love to, and all the ones he'll have in the future. It's available on both DVD and Blu-ray.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Heathers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary with director Lehman, producer Di Novi and writer Waters; Blue Underground featurette Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads, new Anchor Bay featurette Return to Westerburg High, original ending screenplay excerpt (DVD-ROM)
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: July 18, 2008

Footnotes:

1. Savant thought he was pretty clever to immediately recognize the similarity of Christian Slater's vocal mannerisms to those of Jack Nicholson. Unfortunately, practically every review since the movie opened has noticed and mentioned the exact same thing ... and the subject is discussed in both disc docus. Checking back in older reviews, I discover that everyone but me seems to have been aware of Slater's "Nicholson period". Maybe I'd better not claim that as an original observation after all --- .
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2. I'm certainly not holding Heathers responsible for Columbine, or saying that its makers bear any moral duty except to their own imaginations. Satire loses its power (if it ever had any) when real events overtake them. In these days of war and torture, the culture seems to prefer its violent fantasies serious and self-righteous.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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