|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1999|
"Heathers" wowed critics and surprised audiences; it was such a fresh idea for its time that it has become a kind of touchstone by which satiric teen comedies have invariably been measured in the ten years since it was released. But like many "minor classics," it has more flaws than its reputation suggests -- even though it wasn't until this year that it was topped in its field.
Dark comedies are rare, and were never very common in the first place. They provide a kind of release that no other comedies can. With good reason, people take death so very seriously in order to lose sight of the fact that it is the fate awaiting all of us. You, me, your cousin's cute baby and George W. Bush. We're all doomed bags of meat.
Occasionally, it does our souls good to be able to laugh at this idea, at the irony that all our living will still result in food for the daisies. The best black comedies, and the rare form is even more rarely well done, are subversive at their wicked, chuckling little hearts. And among dark comedies, "Heathers" is notably subversive -- for among the ideas it undercuts is the idea of dark comedy itself. With one single shot of a weeping child, "Heathers" pulls a rug out from under us, and restores the value of life.
At its best, "Heathers" is breathtakingly perverse; you find yourself laughing helplessly at the most vicious plot turns, the wickedest jokes. Winona Ryder's performance in the leading role is sharp, intelligent and rich, still one of her best. The production design and use of color are witty, and for two thirds of its length, "Heathers" is outstanding. It slips up badly in the home stretch, however; by the end, it has lost most of its steam and the wrapup is unsatisfactory and verbose.
Ryder is Veronica, a wealthy, attractive member of a four-member high school "club," she's the only one not named Heather (hence the title). Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is a nasty schemer whose greatest delight is in being the person everyone in school looks up to -- even though they loathe her as well. Her second greatest pleasure is in making #2 Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) and #3 Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) feel forever like second-raters in their own clique.
The Heathers are delighted with their position as the vicious elite -- Veronica, who furiously makes ironic entries in her diary throughout the film, is not. Her former best friend Betty (Renee Estevez) is regarded as a dweeb by the Heathers, who also delight in tormenting lonely fat teenager Martha (Carrie Lynn). Veronica has been swept up in all this almost against her will, and certainly cannot talk to her distant parents about any of this.
And then a wild card enters this deck. Newcomer J.D. (Christian Slater) is threatened by bullet-headed jocks Kurt (Lance Fenton) and Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux) in the cafeteria. So he pulls out a gun and shoots them. The gun was loaded with blanks, but this demonstration of extremism certainly goes a long way toward establishing J.D.'s credentials as an outsider. Veronica is immediately drawn to him, and they soon become lovers. J.D. persuades her to help him strike back at the Heathers and the rigidly stratified social structure of high school. The only problem is that this involves death -- and our believing that Veronica doesn't realize that J.D. is not just a rebel, but actually a psychopath.
This was the first feature by director Michael Lehmann, literally a philosopher turned director; "Heathers" is stylish, sharp and even tense, with a visual style that seems strongly influenced by that of Brian DePalma's "Carrie," another high school satire but which was hardly a comedy. But with the exception of "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," Lehmann's other films have ranged from the merely bad ("Meet the Applegates") to the notoriously awful ("Hudson Hawk").
The script is by Daniel Waters, and is laced with brilliantly twisted lines, the most famous of which is "My teenage angst is developing a body count," as Veronica writes in her diary. It's not realistic; it's highly stylized and mannered, but breezy and funny throughout. This was a fine script; since then, Waters has faltered as badly as (and sometimes with) Lehmann, with his name appearing on mostly bad movies, "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane" being one example. His name hasn't been on a film since 1993, but allegedly he and Lehmann are joining forces again for what sounds like a desperate effort to recover their reputations: "Heathers 2."
"Heathers" baffled some teenagers, because it's as irreverent about what they consider important as it is about almost everything else except honesty and friendship. However, it did do well at the boxoffice, but more importantly, it became famous. And it wasn't until this year's "Election" that one came along that was better than "Heathers." It's a rocky ride at times, and peters out badly at the end, but it made an indelible mark.
The Anchor Bay DVD has only a few extras -- the trailer, a "featurette" composed of scenes from the movie, and extremely brief, meaningless interviews (done at the time of the film) with Ryder and Slater. It's handsomely presented, however, in letterbox format from an excellent print.