Funny how our opinions change over the years. When I became aware of Heathers back in 1989, I thought Winona Ryder was absolutely gorgeous. In fact, I think I rented the movie just to get a look at her. At the time, I didnít realize sheíd played the Goth teen in 1988ís Beetlejuice; Ryder seemed to really grow up during the brief interim.
I donít recall when I started to think less of Ryder. Despite her shift to blonde hair in 1990ís Edward Scissorhands, I still thought she looked great, so that wasnít the beginning of the end. Maybe when she became the patron saint of weepy chick flicks like 1994ís Little Women I shifted away from her. All I know is that when I saw Heathers, I didnít much care for the movie, but I felt Winona looked good.
Flash forward 12 years, and Iíve lost my fascination with Winona Ryder. As I watched Heathers for the first time in years, I thought she was attractive, but I couldnít figure out why I felt so enamored of her.
On the other hand, I also changed my mind about the movie. Originally I didnít much care for Heathers, but upon reappraisal, I donít know what I was thinking. This was a fairly terrific little black comedy.
How black? Heathers is the kind of film in which one character intentionally burns herself with a car cigarette lighter, and another uses her wound to ignite his smoke. Not only does Heathers have the guts to present such a questionable sight, it goes on a limb and offers it as a funny scene. Damned if it doesnít work, though, as Heathers provides one of the most giddily nasty and cruel comedic experiences Iíve encountered.
Heathers focuses on the students of fictional Westerburg High in Ohio. Forming the ultimate female clique are three babes named Heather: Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), Heather McNamara (Lisette Falk), and leader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker). In addition, brainy Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) is part of the group, though she seems like a somewhat unwilling participant. Into this highly dysfunctional pit of high school factions comes JD (Christian Slater), the prototypical cool loner. He instantly impresses Veronica, especially when he disarms some obnoxious jocks named Kurt (Lance Fenton) and Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux); initially he uses wit and cleverness, but eventually he pulls a gun on them and shoots.
JD fires with blanks, of course, but it seems that he has something more malicious in mind. He and Veronica develop a romantic relationship, and the morning after she attends a nasty frat party with Heather Chandler, Veronica and JD stop by her house to give her a hangover treatment. Allegedly jokingly, JD pours some liquid chemicals into a cup, and Veronica inadvertently grabs it. Although aware of its contents, JD lets her go with it, and after she chugs it down, Heather keels over onto a coffee table.
From there the film really starts to turn dark, as the much-despised Heather Chandler quickly becomes a cause celebre even among those who once loathed her snobby and nasty ways. The high school politics continue to fester, but JD doesnít want his anti-establishment movement to cease. He soon entreats Veronica to scare Kurt and Ram, but it quickly becomes clear he has more in mind than just fright tactics.
If you check out the supplements on this DVD, youíll learn how tough it was for Heathers to get made, and that should come as no surprise. In fact, Iíd guess that in todayís post-Columbine world, no one would take a chance on the movie. While movies can push some boundaries that were off limits in 1988, this subject has constricted further; this dark take on high school cliques and teen suicide pushed the edge back then but probably wouldnít see the light of day now.
That would be a shame, for Heathers offers one of the most incisive and wicked experiences Iíve seen. Over the last few years, weíve seen a lot of teen movies, but none of them took on their subjects with the vigor and irreverence viewed during Heathers. Itís real enough to pack a punch, but it also clearly exists in a hyperbolic fantasy world. I suppose skittish studio exists worried itíd warp fragile young minds, but anyone who canít see it for the deft satire it is already has their own problems.
Frankly, itís hard to find too many flaws with Heathers. One major complaint generally surrounds the movieís ending. As youíll discover during the DVDís supplements, the flickís actual conclusion is not the one originally intended. After I learned of the scriptís finale, I wasnít quite sure that was a bad thing, but I can understand the criticisms of the released ending, as it did seem like a bit of a cop-out.
The acting uniformly appeared solid, though I still donít know whether I like Slaterís heavily Nicholson influenced take on JD. Also in the supplements, some folks try hard to convince us that Slater didnít put on an act and that he really talked that way naturally. I donít buy it, if for no other reason than Iíve seen Slater in many projects since Heathers and he didnít sound nearly this much like Jack in any of those. I suppose itís possible he was natural in Heather and altered his patterns for other flicks, but that seems unlikely.
As it stands, Slater really did a fine job as JD once you got past the voice, but that could be hard to do. The performance came across like such a forced impersonation that it could become distracting. This didnít overtly harm the movie, but it could take away from some of its luster.
However, that was only a slight problem, as the vicious energy and wit of Heathers more than compensated for any flaws. It still seems amazing that this thing ever got made, as it offered such a gleefully nasty and virulent take on teen life. Though not for the easily offended, Heathers remains a terrific piece of work, and it should be happily digested by those of us warped enough to take a bite.
Heathers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the film seemed watchable but bland, as it displayed a mix of moderate concerns.
For the most part, sharpness appeared acceptable. Most of the movie came across as reasonably crisp and distinct, but some shots were a little too soft. This mainly affected wider scenes, whereas closer images seemed better defined. I discerned no significant problems related to jagged edges or moirť effects, and print flaws were surprisingly minor. Actually, a moderate amount of grain affected to film, but otherwise the movie seemed largely free of defects. I noticed a speckle or two, but with the exception of the grain, the rest of the flick looked nicely clean and fresh.
Colors varied from pretty good to rather indistinct. Although not way off base, the latter designation applied to a lot of the movieís hues. The colors could look clean and vibrant, but they also came across as somewhat runny and messy at times. Reds caused the most problems, while the other tones simply seemed a bit bland. Black levels also appeared moderately drab and murky, with shadow detail that presented somewhat excessive opacity at times. In general, Heathers actually seemed watchable, but it was a fairly flat affair.
Similar concerns arose during the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Heathers. The soundfield betrayed a pretty strong forward emphasis. In the front channels, I heard decent but unspectacular stereo separation for the score, and effects also emanated moderately from the sides but they didnít create a very lively presence. The tilt was toward general ambience more than any specific sounds, and that attitude affected the surrounds as well. If any distinctive unique audio cropped up in the rears, I didnít note it; those speakers seemed to offer little more than vague atmosphere.
Audio quality was usually acceptable but lackluster. Dialogue came across as consistently intelligible but the lines appeared somewhat thin and tinny. Music also showed flat and lifeless tones for the most part, though clarity remained decent. The same attitude affected the effects, which consistently appeared heavy on high-end without much depth or dynamic range. Some elements - such as explosions and gunfire - displayed reasonable bass, but those were rare, and most of the movie sounded fairly trebly. For a slightly older film, the audio seemed adequate, but it still provided a very uninspiring experience.
Within this package from Anchor Bay, we discover a mix of solid extras. First up is an audio commentary from director Michael Lehmann, producer Denise Di Novi, and writer Daniel Waters. All three were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. From what I understand, this piece originally appeared on a 1996 laserdisc release of Heathers. My only complaint about the track resulted from the manner in which it was recorded; at times the participants seemed mildly oblivious to each othersí presence, as occasionally one would interrupt someone else. However, the track remained very solid despite that annoyance.
Somewhat surprisingly, Waters dominated the commentary; Di Novi and Lehmann definitely added a lot of good details, but Waters was the voice heard most of the time. That was fine with me, as he contributed a very frank and entertaining presence. Actually, all three were solid, and the commentary tossed in a slew of great details about the production. I learned about alterations made along the way, problems with the studio, and dealing with the actors among other things, though they mildly sidestepped the issue of Shannen Dohertyís infamous attitude. They even addressed touchy issues like the casting of Martha Dumptruck. Overall, this was a very compelling commentary that I really enjoyed.
Next we find a good documentary called Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads. A brand-new production, this piece lasts a half an hour as it mixes the usual components. We see a modest selection of appropriate film clips along with some stills and new interviews from director Lehmann, producer Di Novi, writer Waters, director of photography Francis Kenny, editor Norman Hollyn, and actors Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, and Lisette Falk.
Overall, ďSwatch DogsĒ provides a solid look at the movie, mainly via the excellent interview snippets. All of the participants remain enthusiastic about the project and they relate a lot of compelling information about the flick. We learn about the difficulties getting the project off the hand, the actors who almost starred in the movie, the original ending, possibilities for Heathers 2 and a bunch of other facts. My only complaint about this entertaining program relates to its length; at just a half an hour, itís way too short.
Speaking of the original ending, apparently it was never shot, but the DVD does include Screenplay Excerpts that relate the details. Despite Watersí - and perhaps others - continued preference for this unused conclusion, I thought it seemed somewhat weak. The finale for the finished film wasnít great either, but frankly, I thought it was preferable. Nonetheless, I was happy to learn more about the scene here.
Heathers includes the THX Optimizer program. Also found on The Phantom Menace, this seems very similar to the THX Optimode available on other DVDs like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Tora! Tora! Tora!. It purports to help you set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimizer is unique for each DVD on which itís included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimizer should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, Iíve been very happy with my already-established calibration and Iím afraid to muck with it, so Iíve never tried the Optimizer or the Optimode. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if youíre just more adventurous than I, the Optimizer could be a helpful addition.
Lastly, we get the filmís fairly terrible theatrical trailer as well as a couple of text pieces. Both written by Jay Marks, we discover some good Production Notes within the DVDís booklet and excellent Talent Bios on the DVD itself. The latter include very informative and entertaining discussions of director Lehmann, producer Di Novi, writer Waters and actors Ryder, Slater and Doherty. Marks includes a slew of great interview clips and facts, and heís not afraid to present the darker sides of the various careers; we hear about Slaterís substance abuse, Dohertyís reputation as a bitch, and even extensive notes about the famous flop that was Hudson Hawk, a film directed by Lehmann and written by Waters. Instead of the glorified filmographies found on most discs, these actually merit a look; all DVD biographies should be this good.
All movies should be as good as Heathers, too, but thatís a less realistic goal. While clearly not for everyone, Heathers offers a wickedly incisive and daring look at the viciousness of teen life, and it does so with evil glee that makes it consistently entertaining. The DVD offers fairly average picture and sound that seem moderately problematic, but they appear typical for the filmís era and budget. In addition, the DVD includes some fine extras. All in all, the combination of excellent movie, acceptable picture and sound, fine extras and a surprisingly low list price make Heathers a must-have.
A few final comments about Heathers on DVD: the folks at Anchor Bay sure do love to give us varied packaging for their wares, and Heathers takes this tendency to an extreme. For one, the standard DVD - the one I just reviewed - can be found with five difference covers. Iíve only seen two of them; the one with Ryder probably appears at the top of this article, as itís the one provided for the publicity materials, and the one with Slater came to me for my screening. Iíd assume that the other three cover the Heathers individually. Five covers, four of which depict pretty young women, and I get stuck with Christian Slater? Somebody up there hates me!
In addition, thereís a limited edition release of Heathers. While the DVD itself is identical to the one reviewed above, the packaging differs. Restricted to 15,000 copies, this set ďcomes packaged in a special tin container.Ē It also provides ďa 48 Page Full-Color ĎYearbook Styleí Booklet with rare photos and moreĒ as well as a ď10 Page Full-Color Fold-Out with photos and liner notes and a special 8" ĎHeathers Rules!í ruler.Ē The limited edition retails for $39.98 - twice the list price of the regular DVD - so youíll have to decide for yourself if these materials merit the extra money.