Color, 1988, 103 mins. 2 secs.
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Penelope Milford, Patrick Labyorteaux, Lance Fenton
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Image Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The arrival of Heathers in 1988 seemed to come out of nowhere, an atypical and whip-smart high school comedy with horrific overtones that quickly made it one of the crown jewels in the library of the post-Roger Corman New World Pictures. On paper it sounded like the blackest and most tasteless of comedies (and would never stand a chance of being greenlit today), but thanks to savvy casting, a razor-sharp script, and a bright pop art look, it turned from an indie favorite and Spirit Award winner into an instant cult classic with VHS and cable airings vaulting it to legendary status. Others have tried to recapture its tone, ranging from homages like Jawbreaker to a musical adaptation and a very ill-advised 2018 TV series, but there still hasn't been anything else out there quite like Heathers.
At Westerburg High, Heather Chandler (Walker) and her cohorts, Heather Duke (Doherty) and Heather McNamara (Falk), are at the top of the social pecking order and conduct a reign of stylish terror over the student body. Initiated into their fold is Veronica (Ryder), who regards the primary Heather as her best friend but also deeply resents her attitude, chronicling everything in a daily diary. Major changes come with the arrival of transfer student J.D. (Slater), a bad boy who quickly wins Veronica over and talks her into playing a morning hangover prank on Heather Chandler after a particularly malicious college party goes sour. However, J.D. tampers with the ingredients and sends Heather crashing dead into a glass table, which he and Veronica improvise into an apparent suicide. The loss causes an outpouring of questionable activism at the school with increasing faculty and student alarm about teenage suicide (echoed in the most popular song on the charts at the moment, "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)"), but as Veronica and J.D.'s escapades start to rack up a higher body count and Heather Duke begins to fill the power gap, it's clear the new guy may have a truly psychopathic plan in the making.
A perfect balance of acidic one-liners and note perfect casting, Heathers soars thanks to the chemistry between its actors and a snappy pace that manages to go into some strange, dreamlike territory at times (even during the opening credits). The approach was a far cry from the John Hughes films that were all the rage at the time, and that freshness still works today with some of its twists and turns still capable of taking viewers aback. Interestingly it was the teen suicide angle that felt the most uncomfortable and shocking at the time before the film goes into absurdist territory, but today the terrorism-themed finale manages to hit a lot closer to home and, tragically, doesn't even remotely feel like satire anymore. The film isn't quite perfect, mainly due to the fact that none of its intended or filmed final scenes quite stick the landing, but no one is likely to care given how very much it gets right.
Due to its popularity, Heathers has appeared on home video in a multitude of editions including its first DVD edition from Anchor Bay in 2001 featuring the featurette "Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads" (30m1s) with Ryder, Slater, Lehmann, Doherty, producer Denise Di Novi, director of photography Francis Kelly, and writer Daniel Waters, a screenplay version of the original nastier ending, and an insert booklet, with four cover options featuring Veronica and the three Heathers. In 2008 and 2009 the film appeared on DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay as a "20th High School Reunion Edition" featuring an okay but unspectacular HD transfer, a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English track, the "Swatch Dogs" featurette, the trailer, a fun audio commentary (with Lehmann, Di Novi and Waters), and a new "Return to Westerburg High" (21m21s) featurette with Lehmann, Di Novi, and Waters looking back at the making of the film. A limited locker edition was also released in 2009 with the Blu-ray, DVD and a digital copy, but good luck finding one for a sane price. In 2011, Image Entertainment inherited the film as part of a multi-film New World licensing deal and recycled the same transfer on Blu-ray and DVD with no extras or effort whatsoever, in keeping with the treatment of its other New World titles.
That brings us to the clear champ of Heathers releases, the 2018 U.K. edition from Arrow Video timed to coincide with the film's 30th anniversary and following a theatrical reissue. The new restoration sourced from a fresh 4K scan of the original negative looks gorgeous, improving considerably on the aged, smoothed over, and wobbly appearance of the older HD transfer. Audio options include the original mono audio (English LPCM 1.0) as well as LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD 5.1 tracks, all sounding quite good if fairly subdued given the nature of the original mix, with optional English SDH subtitles.
The audio commentary with Lehmann, Di Novi and Waters is carried over here along with "Return to Westerberg High;" "Swatch Dogs" was originally announced but had to be dropped, presumably over rights issues. There's also an impressive slate of new material, all of it substantial and worth checking out. "Lehmann's Terms" (15m5s) is an extensive look at his entry into show business including a lengthy tenure at Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola and studying at USC. He only touches on Heathers for a little bit at the end but since he's covered that territory extensively elsewhere, it's nice to hear more about what led up to it. Next composer David Newman and Lehmann appear for "Pizzicato Croquet" (11m11s) to explain how the catchy electronic score came about, with its primary theme springing to life in mere minutes. The "stylized to death" look of the film is explored in "How Very: The Art and Design of Heathers" (15m14s) with production designer Jon Hutman, art director Kara Lindstrom and Lehmann describing how the locations and sets evolved from the script, including a particularly interesting look at how the same shooting space was adapted into each of the girls' bedrooms. Casting director Julie Selzer goes into her process with "Casting Westerberg High" (11m35s) about going to college in Northridge and rubbing shoulders with a lot of up and coming actors before finding her calling with films like Grease 2 and Flashdance, then on to this production (done simultaneously with titles like RoboCop and Throw Momma from the Train!). She also touches on some other actors who were under consideration including Drew Barrymore and Brad Pitt. The one new actor interview is with Falk in "Poor Little Heather" (17m41s), charting in a really charming manner how she started as a young model (including an infamous photo with Brooke Shields and an iconic Foreigner album cover) and fudged about her age to get cast in this film, for which she was originally cast in a smaller role. (Her bit about the cow tipping scene is really priceless.) "Scott and Larry and Dan and Heathers" (38m27s) featuring Waters and screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski sitting around for an informal chat about writing and getting to know each other in 1979, with two of them getting on the teen show Out of Control before embarking on their current careers. It's a fun hangout of a piece, basically the equivalent of listening to some old buddies swapping stories over lunch. "The Big Bowie Theory" (35m3s) is a new appreciation by writer, actor and comedian John Ross Bowie (The Big Bang Theory), who wrote a Deep Focus book study of the film as well, with notes about how the film forged new ground for the depiction of comic violence, owes a debt to Stanley Kubrick (whom Waters originally hoped would be the director), and doesn't rely on a pop song soundtrack as part of its fabric. One of the real feathers in the disc's cap is the inclusion of Lehmann's 1985 USC thesis film, The Beaver Gets a Boner (19m53s), presented in a new HD scan. A real rarity until now, it features Alexander and a pre-Bad Santa Tony Cox in a guttersnipe tale about a juvenile delinquent named Angus who decides to clean up and get a scholarship... but things don't quite go as planned. Quite funny and featuring a quirky, rockabilly sensibility, it must have brought down the house during student screenings despite being very rough around the edges. Also included are an image gallery (including some great behind-the-scenes shots), a VHS-sourced UK trailer (under the title Lethal Attraction!) and the 2018 U.K. reissue trailer, while the packaging features reversible sleeve options including a new design by Robert Sammelin.
Arrow Video Blu-ray
Anchor Bay Blu-ray
Reviewed on September 9, 2018