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Heathers (1989)

Lethal Attraction

Directed by:

Michael Lehmann

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 103 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: United States

Smart teenager Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has problems, obsessively chronicled in her diary. At high school she has become an honorary member of a bitchy clique whose three other members are all called Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker), and she is attracted to their popularity as much as she is repelled by their endless humiliation of others to maintain it. New-in-town rebel Jason ‘JD’ Dean (Christian Slater) seems to be the only one who understands Veronica’s predicament – but when he starts turning her fantasies into reality by murdering the friends she secretly hates, Veronica finds herself becoming a not entirely unwilling accomplice in JD’s psychotically revolutionary scheme for improving life in school and society.

Of course teenagers have always had problems, but in eighties cinema they had it particularly bad. Either they were condemned to blaming everything automatically on teacher or daddy in John Hughes ‘dramedies’, or their lives were literally being torn apart by Freddy, Jason or countless other teen-hating slashers. Then ‘Heathers’ came riding along out of nowhere like JD on his motorbike, and the landscape of adolescent angst was changed forever. By portraying teens as their own worst enemies in a vicious battle between highly stratified peer groups, and marginalising adults (parents, teachers, even the clergy) as largely clueless outsiders with little or no influence on their young wards, ‘Heathers’ created a version of the American high school experience that captured the pain and cruelty of the real thing, before blowing it up into murderously dark satire.

One of the reasons ‘Heathers’ still seems fresh today is that it was so far ahead of its own time. First-time director Michael Lehmann avoided casting familiar eighties bratpackers in ‘Heathers’ because he wanted his teen characters to be played by actual adolescents, and so the film instead features faces that would become icons of the next decade (Ryder, Slater, Doherty) – while the film’s special brand of blank amorality and knowing irony represents what is probably cinema’s first glimpse at Generation X. The witty hyperreality of Daniel Waters’ screenplay (with lines like “well colour me stoked, girl” and “fuck me gently with a chainsaw, do I look like Mother Theresa?”) was like nothing ever heard before, but firmly established a template for snappy teenspeak evident in many, if not all, subsequent Hollywood teen flicks. Without ‘Heathers’, there would simply have been no ‘Clueless’, no ‘Election’, no ‘Slap Her, She’s French’, no Mean Girls.

When ‘Heathers’ came out in 1989, its comic malice was a reaction to the facile moralism of John Hughes’ films, and to the moronic way that teenagers in general, and teenage suicide in particular, were then being idealised in the mainstream media. Yet to view it again in a post-Columbine age is to realise that yesterday’s sardonic hyperbole has become today’s grim reality. For all its over-the-top hilarity as a dissection of teen problems, ‘Heathers’ now seems dangerously prescient – which only adds to its explosive bite.

It's Got: Seminal, career-best performances from Winona Ryder and Christian Slater; hyperreal primary colours that are almost Lynchian; hilarious dialogue that is fast and clever enough to reward multiple viewings; cow-tipping, cherry slushies, strip croquet and great pâté.

It Needs: Urgent intervention from a guidance counsellor.

DVD Extras Anchor Bay newly remastered edition of Heathers release date January 31st 2005. Scene selection; choice of stereo 2.0/Dolby digital 5.1/DTS; optional subtitles; full audio commentary by director Michael Lehmann, writer Daniel Waters and producer Denise Di Novi, who discuss the use of Stanley Kubricks Full Metal Jacket as the principal reference for the visual style of the cafeteria scene, the presence of a young Heather Graham and "a little guy named Brad (Pitt)" at the casting auditions, and two alternative endings; Swatch Dogs and Diet Coke Heads (30min), documentary from 2001 including interviews with Lehmann, Waters, Di Novi, actors Winona Ryder ("every line is my favourite line"), Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, editor Norman Hollyn and director of photography Francis Henry; original trailer; long excerpt from the screenplay with original ending (vetoed by New World Pictures for being too dark); very long biographies (in faux-handwriting on notebook paper) of Slater, Ryder, Doherty, Lehmann, Waters and Di Novi. DVD Extras Rating: 9/10

Alternatives:

Elephant, Fight Club, Mean Girls, Shes French, Slap Her, Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, Zero Day

Summary

This classic teen satire seems to mature with age.

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