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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective

ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Heathers (1988) starring Winona Ryder Blu Ray & DVD (Arrow)

Killing off the cool clique

The Heathers - surnames Duke (Shannen Doherty), McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and their “Number One”, Chandler (Kim Walker) - are a trio of rich, popular teenage girls who are considered to be the social crème de la crème of the fictional Westerburg High School in Iowa. The new recruit to their clique is the pretty but fundamentally decent-natured Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder). One day, while they frequent their main stomping ground - the school cafeteria - Chandler baptises Veronica into their bitchy, superficial ways by assigning her a task: to play a prank on the obese Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) by writing her a fake love note, purportedly originating from hunky football jock Kurt (Lance Fenton).

While this humiliating exercise plays out in front of their very eyes, Veronica gazes at a handsome, leather-clad bad boy type who has recently been transferred to the school. His name is Jason Dean, or J.D. for short (Christian Slater). They quickly hook up with each other based on a mutual interest: a deep dislike of the roundly callous behaviour of the school’s “in crowd”. The main difference is that Veronica puts on a pretence of befriending the Heathers and their ilk in order to fit in (only expressing her true feelings in her trusty diary), whereas J.D. wears his hatred on his sleeve.

Things come to a head one Friday night when Veronica drinks too much at a party she is attending with Chandler - and ends up vomiting over her shoes. The latter is furious that she has messed up their night and tells her that she’s going to turn her into a laughing stock on Monday by telling everyone about the incident. When Veronica gets home, she bumps into J.D., who has been hanging around outside her house. After they play “strip croquet” and make love in the back garden, he persuades her to get back at her pseudo-friend by way of them paying an unannounced visit to her house to prank her with a gross “hangover cure”. One sip of cleaning fluid later, she’s lying dead on the floor with a blue tongue. While Veronica isn’t entirely at ease with the prospect of being slapped with a murder charge, J.D. persuades her to write a fake suicide note.

The deadly duo’s relationship continues as they turn their guns on the thuggish Kurt and his even more idiotic, sex-obsessed best buddy Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux). However, their killing spree, backed up by those faked final confessions, only serves to have unintended consequences as their victims are subsequently awarded undeserved lionisations by all and sundry. It also becomes increasingly obvious that Veronica’s innate desire (egged on by J.D.) to banish her high school of all of its evils isn’t as simple a matter as bumping off a couple of frenemies.

Watch a trailer:

The high school as microcosm

Ok now… cast your mind back to your high school years. Hands up who remembers at least one occasion when they wanted to kill one of their classmates. Most of you? Well, Heathers rides with that concept but, far from becoming a simple blackly comic revenge flick, blossoms into a full-blown social satire on the largely media-perpetuated cult of teen martyrdom and the resultant imperative (especially in the USA) to pay the ultimate price in exchange for recognition. As J.D. says at one point, “the extreme always seems to make an impression”. This is all interwoven with a look at the underlying root causes of adolescent anxiety which get ignored in favour of fostering a perfect surface-level John Hughes-style picture of high school life: rampant body fascism, elitism, sexism, date rape, homophobia, anti-intellectualism and various charismatically psychopathic Mephistopheles-style characters who are pulling the strings behind the scenes. Basically, this school is a microcosm of the worst aspects of a right-wing society.

Heathers (1988)

It’s a great movie on every level. The dialogue is littered with classic Hollywood, Billy Wilder-style razor-sharp exchanges, albeit with a lot more in the way of cuss words and blatant sexual references than would have been allowed during that era. The performances are delightful throughout; Winona Ryder brings an infectious mix of both charming confidence and girl-next-door modesty to her central role, while Christian Slater is at his Jack Nicholson Jr. best as the laconic, cool bad boy in his life. However, the smaller roles are also wonderfully drawn and cast, especially Kim Walker as the über-bitchy Heather Chandler who wrinkles her nose and eyes in unfettered disgust at every little social transgression, Penelope Milford as the happy-clappy, self-righteously right-on teacher Pauline and Glenn Shadix (one of Winona’s co-stars from Beetlejuice) hamming it up hilariously as the priest who conducts the funerals for the duo’s victims.

Whatever happened to Mr. Lehmann?

Sadly, director Michael Lehmann never quite lived up to the brilliance of this debut. His uneven subsequent effort, Meet the Applegates (1990), offered a somewhat similar style of satire but failed to attract a comparable following. His third film, the big-budget Bruce Willis action-comedy Hudson Hawk (1991), was a notorious critical and commercial flop. While he has continued to work since then (albeit, in recent years, largely on television shows such as American Horror Story and True Blood), he is now considered to be a journeyman director worthy of little real media buzz.

His underwhelming career trajectory seems all the more mystifying when you consider his stylish work here. The dreamy opening sequence, featuring the impeccably colour-coordinated trio of Heathers playing croquet in a heavenly garden setting to the playful strains of the song Que Será, Será, only to knock the ball into Veronica’s head while she’s submerged up to her neck in their perfectly-coiffured lawn, feels like a more overtly comedic adolescent rendition of the opening to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. When the girls stalk the dinner hall, the wide lensed camerawork makes them appear more as Godzilla-style monsters, stomping over a city inhabited by those less popular than themselves. The stylised, carefully-matched use of colour and visual design is often reminiscent of Tim Burton’s films. Lehmann’s grasp of tone deftly walks a tightrope which seamlessly blends humour, surrealism, character development and a dash of gore throughout the runtime.

Like many other films which have gone on to become cult favourites, Heathers has directly inspired a variety of works over the years, amongst the best of which have been the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series and the Lindsay Lohan-starring surprise box office hit Mean Girls (2004). It has also recently been remade both as a successful rock musical and as a rather poorly-received TV series. However, the original, resplendent in all of its darkly comic glory, remains the definitive lid-lifter on the insidious order of things within high school society.

Runtime: 103 mins

Dir: Michael Lehmann

Script: Daniel Waters

Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Penelope Milford, Glenn Shadix, Lance Fenton, Patrick Labyorteaux, Carrie Lynn, Renée Estevez

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

This 4K restoration is, for the most part, a thing of beauty. The colours look a little over-saturated at times but, in this case, it’s better to have too much of them than too little. From a sonic standpoint, it’s also wonderfully smooth and rich. A quality piece of work indeed.

Extras

Audio Commentary

Director Michael Lehmann, producer Denise Di Novi and writer Daniel Waters discuss the making of Heathers. Unfortunately, the film’s soundtrack volume is too prominent during their commentary and can make it a little difficult to focus on at times. This is a shame because their discussions are generally fascinating. They reveal that New World Pictures’ financial situation was deteriorating at this point and, as a result, for several key weeks of its release it wasn’t even advertised in the press. In a frankly desperate attempt to cash in on the success of Fatal Attraction and Lethal Weapon, it was released in continental European countries under the name Lethal Attraction.

They also go into extensive detail about many scenes which were cut or amended. The early cafeteria sequence was originally going to be much longer than the one seen in the final film. The song Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It) by the story’s fictional band Big Fun was intended to be more prominent in the script, even including a spoof music video. The scene where Winona showers with her clothes on was intended to be part of a spoof inversion of the classic Porky’s scene involving adolescent males spying on naked girls in a shower through a peephole - the twist being that, contrary to expectations, they see the latter doing so while fully clothed. However, it was removed because it didn’t work as well as they had initially anticipated. There’s one moment in the film where Daniel Waters specifically wanted Heather Chandler to say the word “cunt” - but it was changed to “fuck” at producer Denise Di Novi’s behest as she didn’t like the idea of a female character using that particular euphemism. On the other hand, Di Novi also wanted the scene where Veronica burns her own hand with a car lighter to be snipped but was ultimately persuaded to keep it in. Waters also discusses a couple of different endings which were mooted during production.

Lehmann’s Terms

In this newly-filmed interview, director Michael Lehmann discusses how he got into filmmaking, his early years working at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, a little bit about his debut short The Beaver Gets a Boner and - of course - his endeavours to get Heathers off the ground. His closing piece of advice to us all is “If you want to be a director, make movies!”. Considering that you can (as he points out) create them on your phone nowadays, it isn’t quite as difficult as you might imagine.

Pizzicato Croquet

Composer David Newman and director Michael Lehmann discuss the film’s score and the art of matching music with images. Newman reveals that the best part of his job is how he’s constantly surprised at what works and what doesn’t when matched with a given scene.

How Very: The Art and Design of Heathers

Production designer Jon Hutman, art director/set decorator Kara Lindstrom and director Michael Lehmann discuss the film’s distinctive sets which are described by Lindstrom as being “stylised to death”. Lindstrom also reveals that the croquet ball-based colour coding of the three Heathers was devised in order to make them easy to individually identify, that Heather Chandler’s costuming was inspired by Nancy Reagan and that the school motto seen in the cafeteria is the Latin translation of “Bus your trays”! Hutman, meanwhile, describes the role of production designer as being “part of the storytelling team” because they create the world surrounding the actors.

Casting Westerburg High

Julie Selzer discusses the casting decisions which she and her partner Sally Dennison made for the film. She reveals that they were working on casting a number of films simultaneously at that point, including RoboCop, Throw Momma from the Train, Amazon Women on the Moon and Navy Seals as well as Heathers. Interestingly, both Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt came in to audition for Heathers. Selzer also confesses her love for the film as she felt that there wasn’t one weak link in the entire cast. I have to say that I agree with her.

Poor Little Heather

An enjoyable interview with Heather McNamara herself, Lisanne Falk. She discusses a career which started with modelling and photo shoots, including a famous one involving herself and Brooke Shields (who were both 14 at the time) donning leotards. She also popped up on Foreigner’s Head Games album cover. Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters apparently knew who she was because he was transfixed by a photo of her on the front cover of a modelling book which was placed on display in a shop window on his route to school.

Falk also reveals that she tried for the Heather Number One part but didn’t get it, perhaps (at least, in her mind) because they thought that she was too introverted in nature to be suitable. She was then offered a smaller role. However, fate turned her way when the original actress cast as Heather McNamara wasn’t working out, resulting in her snagging the part.

Scott and Larry and Dan and Heathers

Daniel Waters converses with his longtime friends and screenwriting collaborators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski about Heathers. As you might expect from attending a 38-minute chat between a circle of best buddies who aren’t familiar to you, it comes across as being rather rambling and stuffed with head-scratching in-jokes. However, it’s interesting to learn that Waters derived the idea from an old script which he wrote at college about three girls named Heather who burn a classmate at the stake. He also reveals that, after Shannen Doherty attended a screening, she said “nobody told me it was a comedy”.

The Big Bowie Theory

Comedian John Ross Bowie gives us his appreciation of the film in this highly enjoyable 35-minute video essay. He became acquainted with it during a crucial period of his life when he was in a senior year at high school and dating his second consecutive real-life Heather. He talks about the influences which it takes from Stanley Kubrick (writer Daniel Waters has mentioned that he wanted it to be Kubrick’s high school film, just as The Shining was his horror film and Full Metal Jacket his war film). In turn, he notes the influence its style may have had on the films of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, as well as its reimagining of a kind of fanged cynicism which was hitherto unseen in teen films. He discusses many different aspects of the film, even down to fine details such as the surname of the second Heather (McNamara), which as a jab at the cowardice of US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara’s complicity in the Vietnam War despite the fact that he felt it was wrong.

Return to Westerburg High

This archive featurette from an old Anchor Bay release features interviews with Daniel Waters, Denise Di Novi and Michael Lehmann. While there’s a lot of inevitable overlap with the other extras here, there are still some points of interest to be found. We learn that Justine Bateman (from the sitcom Family Ties) was the first choice to play Veronica. Also, in a sad stroke of ironic fate, two cast members here suffered untimely deaths with disturbing parallels to their own dialogue from the film. Kim Walker (who, as Heather Chandler, delivered the classic line: “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”) passed away in 2001, at the age of 32, from that very cause. Meanwhile, Jeremy Applegate (who played a smaller role in the film, with one of his lines being “Dear Lord, please make sure this never happens to me because I don't think I could handle suicide.”) took his own life in 2000 at the age of 32.

The Beaver Gets a Boner

Michael Lehmann’s 1985 student short features Matthew Rosen as Angus Leech, a stereotypical leather-clad, bike-riding high school bad boy. Since he owes money to a midget drug dealer who will (literally) cut his balls off if he fails to pay up, he decides to sign up to get awarded a scholarship grant. The catch is that he has to be square in order to be in with a chance. The humour here isn’t exactly sophisticated but there are a few quirky and imaginative touches: a spoof MPAA certificate rated “I.Q.-13”, a cartoon-style pink beaver logo which intermittently pops up for 1960s Batman-style transitions and a colourful LSD trip sequence. Oh, and the sight of chopped-off balls in a jar and a beaver statue being cut up with a chainsaw. As student films go, it’s lively enough.

Two trailers, an image gallery and a limited edition collector’s booklet round out the extras here.

Overall:

Heathers is a stone cold 1980s classic. There’s an absolute wealth of extras here and, even if one or two of them leave something to be desired and there’s some overlap in terms of content, they still help to provide a lot of background detail on the film and its cultural impact.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆1/2

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