There have always been two Peter Jacksons working behind the lens. The first is a confirmed geek, a genre junkie who turned blood splattered slapstick into horrifically hilarious efforts like Bad Taste and his infamous Dead Alive (aka Braindead). The other is a bit more refined, delving deep into the mechanics of moviemaking for such obscure works as Meet the Feebles (his foul-mouthed Muppets take-off), Forever Silver (a fake documentary), and his in-computer reinvention of a classic (King Kong). While he managed to parlay parts of both sides of his creative personality for the amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy, few remember – or in the case of The Lovely Bones, want to recall – his deeper, more dramatic side. One look back at 1994’s marvelous Heavenly Creatures should change all that.
Coming hot on the heels of his memorable zombie comedy, this fictionalized look at a real life New Zealand murder (known as the “Parker-Hulme Case”) was seen as a stretch for Jackson. It didn’t involve elaborate physical gags or make-up effects, and instead used the burgeoning technology of CGI to create an alternate fantasy world where he main characters escaped…and plotted. The basic storyline follows two troubled adolescents – the prim and proper Juliet Hulme (an astonished Kate Winslet) and her frumpy, working class friend Pauline Parker (the equally terrific Melanie Lynskey). Against the backdrop of a solemn ’50s suburbia, the plot follows the girls as they fantasize about Hollywood icons and fairytale figures. As their inner universe becomes more complex and compelling, their home life suffers. When the parents determine to separate the far too ‘close’ friends, they kill Pauline’s mother out of revenge.
Of course, it’s all more intricate than that and what Heavenly Creatures does better than most movies on the subject of unexplained violence in seemingly unlikely areas is find a link between the psychological and the hysterical. For all their girl’s school demeanor, Juliet and Pauline are just one imagined tragedy away from becoming psychotic. They are so lost in themselves, so in love with the idea of their partnership and its whispered over implications that when the walls of parents and other problems come crashing down around them, they react like caged animals. With his skill as a filmmaker and his decision to mix elements of the ethereal with those of the truth, Jackson turns our heroines into powder kegs waiting to explode. When they do, the results aren’t rational – far from it – but are at least part of a known dramatic arc.
Similarly, the superb acting helps sell the terrifying transformation. Winslet, known today as one of the world’s best (and an Oscar winner) is brand new here – not that you’d ever notice it. She is commanding as the British transplant overwhelmed by the newness and novelty of New Zealand and Christchurch, and her bond with Pauline makes perfect sense. While their personalities may seem divergent, their purpose is not. These are girls isolated from everything they desire – fame, fortune, glamour, “good times” and Jackson manages to get Winslet to pry back her porcelain shell and show some real fear. It’s one of the finest performances in the star’s long career, carrying her past some of the narrative’s more prickly points.
But the real revelation here is Ms. Lynskey. While not as well known as her co-star (not then or now), she is every bit her equal. As a matter of fact, she is so pronounced in how she holds the screen that you often forget that Ms. Winslet is working with her. It’s an incredible overall transformation – from matron-like appearance to budding youthful sexuality. Perhaps the only issue exaggerated is the implied lesbianism. While the performers pick up on it and accentuate it, the truth was not so concrete. There have been denials and defenses along the way, but this is Jackson’s vision, and in his mind, two ’50s era girls wouldn’t go to such extremes if there wasn’t something equally extreme in jeopardy.
In fact, the whole purpose of Heavenly Creatures is to sabotage the standard ideal regarding what drives someone to murder. By the early ’90s, FBI profilers and your simple serial killer film found a convenient set of circumstances and situations which acted as talking points for a pundit’s position on brutality. Here, there are no abusive circumstances, no nightly beatings or perverted uncles. Here, we don’t see a slow or steady decline into sadism. Instead, we get the panicked act of desperation, what many would consider “the heat of passion.” Of course, this presumes the aforementioned alternative lifestyle link that would, today, make up the vast majority of the movie…if it were true. Instead, Jackson creates layers that link to what we are experiencing. By the end, we feel Juliet and Pauline’s pain and are eager to see it end – just not in the way they envision.
Even more telling is the new “Uncut Version.” The original running time was near 110 minutes, with Jackson cutting material to bring it closer to 90. Now, that footage is back and it’s interesting to see what if anything fresh it brings. For the most part, we are talking about minor moments, beats that don’t diminish the characters or their cause. In some instances, it’s the elongating of a previous scene. In others, reinserted bits step in to explain and/or reexamine an issue. Those hoping that this extended presentation would be as transformative as the one offered to The Frighteners a few years back may be disappointed. This isn’t one of those releases that redefine a film. Instead, the Heavenly Creatures Uncut Edition Blu-ray shows how meticulous Jackson was the first time around. He knew what he had…and believed he best knew how to present it (he has since said the 99 minute version of the film is his favorite).
So in some ways, this new disc is just a gimmick, a way to get fans to repurchase something they may already own, or invest in a format they would otherwise ignore. At its core, however, Heavenly Creatures has always been more than a film nerd stunt. For all the epic sweep of his sword and sorcery classics, this is the movie that really made Peter Jackson’s name. It was the work which indicated there was more to his muse than arterial spray and a love of all things gory. By toning down his aesthetic dementia, he showed where true inspiration – and insanity – lie. Indeed, Heavenly Creatures remains the moment when the two Peter Jacksons became one. It remains a singular sensation.