Long before Tina Fey’s ‘Mean Girls’ stormed theaters and amassed a respectable following on DVD, director Michael Lehmann’s ‘Heathers’ attempted the same feat. While it only succeeded at the latter (after making a paltry million at the box office), the film was darker, edgier, and presented a far harsher satire of teenage life than anything before (or arguably since). Considered by many to be the black comedy of the ‘80s, its anti-Hughes sensibilities, challenging storyline, and unlikeable protagonists propelled it into cinematic notoriety. Suffice to say, it was ahead of its time.
In the strange and surreal world of ‘Heathers,’ the social hierarchy of a Columbus, Ohio high school is dominated by a group of four mean-spirited girls -- Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), and odd-girl-out Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder). They get their kicks out of bullying weaker students, ridiculing anyone outside of their clique, and being both revered and feared by everyone in the school. Little changes until Veronica meets a rebellious and unstable young man named J.D. (Christian Slater), sabotages her relationship with the other girls, and pulls away from their circle. Soon thereafter, sharp ridicule leads to murder and Veronica is left forging a suicide note to cover up the fact that she and J.D. were responsible. But as more bodies pile up and suicide becomes all the rage at Westerburg High, Veronica begins to realize she’ll have to stop her boyfriend from killing everyone on campus.
Screenwriter Daniel Waters initially fought to have director Stanley Kubrick helm his script and it shows in nearly every scrap of dialogue and nightmarish development. There’s a cold and unsettling reality tucked just under the surface of the film’s comedy that disturbs as often as it elicits nervous laughter. Then-rookie director Lehmann (who went on to make junk like ‘Meet the Applegates,’ ‘Hudson Hawk,’ and ‘Airheads’) took Waters’ Kubrickian hopes to heart, interpreting the story’s dog-eat-dog world of high school students as a relentless fever-dream that feels dangerously authentic no matter how bizarre the circumstances become. He plays his camera tight and steady as well, lingering on the consequences of Veronica and J.D.’s actions, showing us each major and minor character at their worst, and leering at those unfortunate enough to catch the Heathers’ attention.
As a result, ‘Heathers’ transcends its own genre’s trappings -- it desperately avoids an adherence to contrived morals, subverts the need for a happy ending, and exposes every person’s irrational desire to be better than the next guy. Even twenty years later, the film is shockingly relevant. For every quotable line and startlingly funny exchange, you’ll find a distressing subplot about acceptance or a disheartening revelation about a person’s instinct to follow a crowd that makes you feel sick to your stomach. Like any effective black comedy, ‘Heathers’ identifies its target early and strikes often. However, Lehmann takes things a step farther, looking beyond teenage life and focusing on the way human beings treat each other.
’Heathers' isn’t a feel-good farce or a sappy spoof. In fact, as classic comedies go, it’s one of the sharpest and darkest comedies I’ve seen, one that still works two decades after it first appeared on the scene. I hesitate to overreach and slap labels like “timeless” or “universal” on an '80s high school satire, but this one comes pretty close to both. If you enjoy wit and unflinching honesty with your laughs, Lehmann’s first and best film won’t disappoint.
I have to admit I wasn’t expecting a lot from the high definition debut of ‘Heathers’ -- after all, Lehmann always intended his film to be a soft-focused affair with muted colors and low-key visuals. Still, I found myself disappointed with the results. Presented with a relatively faithful 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, the picture struggles with a bland palette, pasty and flushed skintones, and average contrast. Vibrant reds punctuate the experience, but the remaining image is too washed out and inconsistent to hit with any memorable impact. While the transfer’s fine detail is the most improved aspect of the presentation (when compared to both previously-released standard DVD editions), texture and edge clarity is a bit unreliable from shot to shot, appearing crisp at times and slightly hazy at others.
Thankfully, the image is surprisingly clean, artifacting and source noise rarely intrude, and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum. Grain sometimes spikes and shadow delineation is at the behest of the transfer’s occasionally mediocre black levels, but the disc will nevertheless provide fans with a decent picture and a nice upgrade.
’Heathers’ features a technically proficient but wholly underwhelming Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that reveals the production’s age even more than the film’s dated visuals. Dialogue is clear, intelligible, and properly prioritized for the most part, but too many lines sound mushy and indistinct to warrant much praise. Likewise, LFE support is fairly healthy for a twenty-year old catalog film, but it often fails to properly enhance the weight of the soundscape. Furthermore, the entire mix is quite front heavy, leaving the rear speakers with little to do -- ambience is limited and spotty, interior acoustics are a bit flat, and the soundfield just doesn’t have the immersive qualities I look for in a more masterful remix.
Even so, it’s not a total loss -- the TrueHD track does a nice job preserving the film’s original sound design and ultimately offers a noticeable upgrade over the standard DVD’s thin and tinny Dolby mix. I wish every film could get the same sonic overhaul afforded to more popular classics, but fans of ‘Heathers’ probably won’t be overly disappointed with the somewhat average results.
’Heathers’ debuts on Blu-ray with nearly all of the special features that appear on its most recent DVD release (the only thing missing is a DVD-ROM screenplay excerpt). Even though the supplemental material doesn’t amount to much, the BD edition includes an exclusive Trivia Track and presents most of the disc’s video content in high definition.
’Heathers’ is a dark comedy with serious bite. It dabbles in uncomfortable laughs, piercing humor, and disturbing developments to create one of the most surreal and satirical high school comedies ever committed to film. Sadly, the Blu-ray edition isn’t worth getting too excited about. With an underwhelming video transfer, a bland TrueHD audio track, and a limited collection of supplements, I fear this film will be doomed to obscurity amongst more popular BD releases on the market.