I feel like I missed part of the traditional high school experience. Don't get me wrong; like most everyone, the four wasted years of my life spent in high school were pretty miserable, but decidedly angst-free. I didn't make any attempts at expressing poorly-conceived rage at the world at large through poetry or minor key songs on an $80 acoustic guitar from Sears. Youth Angered By World Writes First Poem -- "Fire / Fire, fire, fire / Fire on my brain / Fire!" I also wasn't part of any of the cafeteria cliques that are identified in seemingly every movie set in a high school. As much as I hated those years, I didn't really have much in common with the characters in Heathers, the teen-angst-black-comedy to end all teen-angst-black-comedies. Despite its stellar though somewhat controversial reputation, I embarassingly somehow managed to avoid seeing Heathers in its entirety until this afternoon. Though the fashion dates the film squarely in the late '80s and the verbage is not quite so very anymore, its themes and ideas are every bit as relevant today -- perhaps even moreso -- than they were upon Heathers' theatrical release in 1989.
Westerberg High School is run by Heather McNamara, Heather Duke, and Heather Chandler, whose influential social clique is appropriately referred to as "the Heathers". The other students at Westerberg can be easily classified into one of two groups -- those who want to be a Heather and those who just want to bag one. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is plucked from obscurity to join the Heathers, who she sees not as friends, but as co-workers in the industry of popularity. A disaffected rebel by the none-too-subtle name of Jason Dean (Christian Slater) quickly catches Veronica's affection and turns her unfocused anger towards the fun and profit of murder. The Westerberg elite meet unpleasant ends, one by one, with Veronica's gift of mimicry providing a convenient suicide note for each. Veronica soon grows weary of offing her former associates, but J.D. isn't quite ready to stop, particularly with the grand plans he has in store for Westerberg... I like ending plot summaries with those three beautiful dots. I know it's clichéd, but what can I say? I'm not a very skilled writer.
Although Heathers is most often associated with teen suicide, it would be a mistake to label this brilliant, unrelenting dark comedy as such. This isn't a tale about death or revenge, but popularity and the immeasurable lengths to which people will go to attain it. The satire is, pardon the weak pun, dead on. Heathers is funny but mildly disturbing at the same time, and I'd wager that it's this blend that's led to its longevity and sizeable fan base. Being administered the lesson that popularity isn't all it's cracked up to be might seem trite, even to those hypocritical people who attained social status at the expense of once-close friends and family. The message is easier to swallow when given the opportunity to live vicariously through Veronica and J.D. Really, was there anyone who attended a public high school in the United States without fostering revenge fantasies against the smug bastards that dominated everyone and everything? Heathers is an excellent and relevant film whose late-'80s origins only add to its appeal. If you loathed high school, and it's a safe bet that anyone reading DVD reviews on the Internet did, you owe it to yourself to watch Heathers at least once.
Video: Reviews of the video quality of Anchor Bay's previous DVD release of Heathers were fairly positive, with the most major quibble being the lack of anamorphic enhancement. This new special edition release rectifies that, though its shoestring budget origins occasionally shine through. Grain is generally kept at a very reasonable level, with only a couple of shots -- such as our first peek at the pep rally near the film's climax -- seeming in any way excessive. Black levels are fairly strong, and the slightly dark color palette seems as accurate as it can, I suppose. Sharpness and detail are decent enough, though softness infrequently pops up from time to time, as in portions of Jason Dean's decidedly one-sided conversation with Veronica about a petition that made the rounds at Westerberg. What little aperature correction is present isn't intrusive, and specks and assorted print flaws are kept in check. Typically solid work from Anchor Bay, though this is the sort of film that will never look as glossy and processed as other teen flicks from the same time period.
Audio: Frequent Anchor Bay collaborator Chace Digital has provided a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of Heathers, though the end result isn't quite as memorable as previous Chace efforts like Hellraiser and Evil Dead II. Heathers' dialogue-driven nature doesn't naturally lend itself to a bombastic mix, with numerous panning effects or music roaring from every speaker. Most of the action is geared towards the front, with surround use limited almost entirely to an unremarkable score. Bass response for some of the songs and louder effects sprinkled throughout seemed solid enough, though there's no danger of causing structural damage or anything. Dialogue is always discernable and never dominated by music or ravaged by the 12 years that have passed since the film's initial theatrical release.
Supplements: First-up on this special edition release is a screen-specific commentary from writer Daniel Waters, producer Denise Di Novi, and director Michael Lehmann. All three look back fondly on the film but aren't afraid to discuss its shortcomings, due mostly to the paltry amount of money they had at hand. Though they make light of certain flaws and relate quite a few hilarious on-set anecdotes, there's some rather serious discussion about teen suicide and some of the other underlying themes of Heathers. None of them fall into the nasty habit of watching the film instead of talking about it, and moments of silence are kept to a bare minimum. This is an excellent, entertaining commentary, standing out as one of just a few that I'll probably listen to again in the not-too-terribly-distant future.
The newly produced documentary, "Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads", retreads much of the same ground in the commentary, but includes interviews with nearly everyone alive involved in any capacity with Heathers. As with other recent Anchor Bay documentaries, such as the one included on the House set, there are too many unnecessarily long clips from the movies interspersed throughout. The sheer number of participants had me aching for a Goonies-style commentary track, and I felt a tinge of disappointment when the credits started to roll, hoping for more.
Along with an anamorphic widescreen trailer and the THX Optimode setup are several text-based supplements. The cast/crew bios are a step above what most discs offer, and the original ending in the screenplay would've been very interesting to see in some sort of finished form. The essay in the liner notes serves as a commentary-lite for those putting off watching the documentary or sitting through the commentary track, offering a fair amount of information on the genesis of the project and the controversy that arose after its release.
Conclusion: Anchor Bay's steady stream of critically acclaimed special editions at rather low prices is more than welcome, and Heathers clocks in at a bargain-basement $19.98. Available for $13.20 shipped online, this very respectable special edition is well worth buying again for owners of the previous release as well as those discovering Heathers for the first time. Recommended.