“Are we going to prom or to Hell?”
A few years ago, Entertainment Tonight named Heathers in the top 10 high school movies of all time. I’d argue that it’s also one of the greatest dark comedies ever made. Scratch that—it’s one of the greatest comedies ever made. No, scratch that—Heathers is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. It belongs on the same shelf as the masterpieces by Kurosawa, Kubrick, Welles, Hitchcock, Spielberg, and all the other greats. Heathers is among the best of the best. It’s very.
Who are the Heathers? Heather Chandler (Kim Walker, Say Anything), Heather McNamara (teen model turned actress Lisanne Falk), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty, Mallrats) and Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands). They’re the most loved—and feared—girls in school. Veronica, however, has had it with their self-centeredness and their cruelty to other students. Her eyes stray to the rebellious, iconoclastic J.D. (Christian Slater, Broken Arrow). As Veronica and J.D.’s romance blossoms, it becomes complicated when the two of them murder Heather Chandler, making it look as if she committed suicide. Their plot backfires, though, because Heather Chandler gets even more popular and beloved afterward. After that, Veronica’s life spirals out of control. There are more murders disguised as suicides, actual suicide attempts, and spiritual healing circles, all leading up to J.D.’s final scheme, one that he believes will not just destroy the entire school, but make a statement to the world about the fallacy of high school life. Will Veronica stop him, or join him?
Sometimes, all the right pieces fall into place. Starting with an out-there script by Daniel Waters (Sex and Death 101), backed by producer Denise Di Novi (Batman Returns) with a knockout cast, a first big break for most of them. Although Waters wanted legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) to direct, the project instead was helmed by Michael Lehmann (The Truth About Cats and Dogs), who, it turned out, was the right man for the job.
This is some dark, dark, dark subject matter played for laughs. While watching, you’re stunned at how far the movie goes into mind-f*** territory. It’s one thing for a distraught Veronica to self-immolate herself by burning her hand with a cigarette lighter, but it’s something else entirely when J.D. then lights his cigarette off her still-hot hand. There’s really no other way to respond to scenes like this other than, “Whoa, that’s dark.”
But despite the subject matter, Heathers is wickedly funny. In every scene, the dialogue consistently pops with one memorable line after another. It might be “heightened” teen speech, but there’s an underlying truth to what these characters say. Not to mention the fact that the movie is endlessly quotable:
“Technically, I did not kill Heather Chandler, but hey who am I trying to kid, right? I just want my high school to be a nicer place. Amen. Did that sound bitchy?”
“Now that you’re dead, what are you gonna do with your life?”
“When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll be kissing her aerobicized ass, but tonight, let me dream of a world without Heather, a world where I am free.”
“If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host.”
“Moby Dick is dunked. The white whale drank some bad plankton and splashed through a coffee table and now it’s your turn to take the helm.”
“Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.”
And that’s skipping over some of the more famous lines.
Yes, the movie deserves praise for dark imagery combined with clever, humorous dialogue. But this is nonetheless a cinematic oddity—a comedy about suicide. That’s certainly going to leave a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths. If that’s the case, I’d encourage you to look at the film’s real target. It’s not spoofing suicide, but people’s reactions to suicide. Winona Ryder says it best in the bonus features with an anecdote about one girl who was picked on venomously by other girls. After she killed herself, those same girls made a big show about how much they loved and adored her. It was after being sickened by this display of artificiality that the Heathers script landed on Ryder’s lap.
The funeral scenes in Heathers contain some of the movie’s most over the top gags, but also some of its most biting satire. Notice how Father Ripper (Glenn Shadix, Beetlejuice) delivers eulogies as if he’s doing a Shakespearian death scene. Then, as we hear the thoughts of those praying at the coffin, they are all focused on themselves, with little care or regard to the deceased. This is punctuated with a shot of Heather McNamara using holy water to spritz up her hair, again showing that the characters are taking someone else’s suicide and using it to better themselves. Later, during a dream sequence, everyone sitting at a funeral wears 3-D glasses. In the world of Heathers, suicide becomes entertainment.
Even more cynical, though, is how some characters use the suicides of others to improve their own station in life. The first shot of the movie is Heather Chandler affixing her gigantic red scrunchie to her hair. This eventually becomes a symbol of power throughout the film. Notice how each of the Heathers has her own color scheme. Heather Chandler dresses in red—foreshadowing her fate, no doubt—while Heather McNamara wears yellow, Heather Duke wears green, and Veronica appropriately wears blue. Then, after Heather Chandler’s death, there’s a shift in colors, representing a shift in power. As Heather Duke gradually becomes the new “Heather number one,” her wardrobe goes from green to red, showing her transformation in taking over Heather Chandler’s place in life.
The teenagers aren’t the only offenders. A subplot has a teacher hoping to use the suicides as a chance to help the teens open up about their feelings. When she first proposes this, the school principal, sitting at the head of a conference table with the school logo framing him like a halo, shoots her ideas down with one of the movie’s best put-downs. Later, though, after more deaths occur, the principal relents to her wishes, this time with her at the head of the table and under the logo-halo. This shows that the teacher has now used the suicides to maneuver herself into a position of power within the school faculty. This is later reaffirmed when she invites a local TV crew to film the school’s spiritual healing—she’s more about flaunting herself than genuinely helping the kids.
The movie is filled with visual clues to what the characters are thinking and feeling. When Veronica and Heather Chandler fight after a disastrous college party, there’s a fire burning in a trash can, framed in between the two of them. Not the most subtle symbolism, but it does show how the conflict between them had been smoldering for some time, and has now been ignited. Later, after Heather Chandler’s death, Veronica sits in a classroom off to the side of her fellow students, with a painting of butterfly wings behind her. Has she truly “emerged” out of a metaphorical cocoon and begun to fly? This is debatable, considering how much inner conflict Veronica demonstrates in scenes where she writes in her diary. During these scenes, she wears a monocle, which I don’t believe has ever been teen fashion. The monocle would seem to show that she’s divided, pulled in two directions, and not seeing things clearly. The monocle doesn’t appear in the third act, showing that Veronica has found her way, and is seeing with clarity as she confronts J.D. for the last time.
There is much controversy among fans over the movie’s ending. Several alternate endings were proposed, and Waters is on record several times expressing his dissatisfaction with the ending in the finished project. Nothing against Waters, but I feel the movie’s ending in nearly perfect, and fitting with the tone of the movie. After the grotesque confrontation with J.D., Veronica gets to celebrate her victory, but she does so in a somewhat dark, grim way.
Has the movie received a new digital remastering on this disc? Good question. Comparing some key scenes from the old disc and this new one, my eyes can detect no differences. Experts reported some print flaws and minor edge enhancement on the old disc, and I didn’t spot any of that on this new disc. Remastered or not, the picture quality looks stunning. The audio shines as well, in 5.1 surround, making the dialogue clear and the score and rock tunes sound great.
The only extra on this disc that wasn’t on previous releases is a new featurette, “Return to Westerberg High.” This contains interviews with Waters, Lehmann, and Di Novi, as well as a modern-day look at the filming locations, which appear surprisingly unchanged. A lot on this featurette repeats what’s on the other extras, but there is one notable aspect to it—the creators look at the movie in the context of the Columbine massacre and other instances of teen violence in recent years. Their responses boil down to “it’s a product of its time,” and “it’s only a comedy,” but, still, it’s good to have them address the topic.
All the other extras have been ported over from the previous special edition release. Citizen Kane has The Battle for Citizen Kane. Apocalypse Now has Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. And Heathers has Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads. This documentary, featuring interviews from all the movie’s key players, covers pretty much everything you’d ever want to know about the movie, as well as plenty of fun and fascinating anecdotes from the production. Complimenting this is the audio commentary, again with Waters, Lehmann, and Di Novi, which is similarly filled with info and great anecdotes. Other extras include the theatrical trailer and the original ending in script form, accessible on DVD-ROM.
So if you own the previous version of Heathers on DVD, is this one worth the upgrade? Hard to say. The picture appears to my eyes to be slightly better, and the new featurette has some interesting moments. Everything else, though, is something you already own. This DVD, then, appeals to only two groups—those who don’t yet own a copy, and those who are the movie’s most passionate fans, who’ll happily buy anything Heathers-related.
Like I said, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and this is an excellent DVD presentation for it.