These ‘Heavenly Creatures’ Are Actually from Hell

By toning down his usual aesthetic violence in Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson shows where true inspiration – and insanity – lie.

There are always 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 Peter Jackson 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 – Jackson’s 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”) is seen as a stretch for Jackson. It doesn’t involve elaborate physical gags or make-up effects and instead uses the burgeoning technology of CGI to create an alternate fantasy world where the main characters escaped…and plotted.

Heavenly Creatures‘ 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 a solemn ’50s-era suburbia, the plot follows the girls as they fantasize about Hollywood icons and fairytale figures. Their home life suffers as their inner universe becomes more complex and compelling. When the parents determine to separate the far “too close” friends, they kill Pauline’s mother for revenge.

Of course, the crime is more intricate than that, and what Heavenly Creatures does better than most films about unexplained violence in seemingly unlikely areas is find a link between the psychological and the hysterical. For all their girls’ 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-about implications, that when the walls 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 characters’ terrifying transformation. Winslet, known today as one of the world’s best (and an Oscar winner) is brand new in Heavenly Creatures – 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 character’s bond with Pauline makes perfect sense. While their personalities may seem divergent, their purpose is not. These girls are isolated from everything they desire – fame, fortune, glamour, “good times” – and Jackson gets Winslet to pry back her porcelain shell and convey real fear. This is 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 Lynskey. While not as well known as her co-star, she is every bit her equal. Indeed, she is so pronounced in how she holds the screen that you often forget that Winslet is working with her. It’s an incredible overall transformation – from a 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 is not so concrete. There have been denials and defenses along the way, but this is Jackson’s vision, and in his mind, two seemingly straight ’50s-era girls wouldn’t go to such “extremes” in their relationship if there wasn’t something equally extreme in jeopardy.

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 that acted as talking points for a pundit’s position on brutality. In Heavenly Creatures, there are no abusive circumstances, nightly beatings, or pervert uncles that drive the girls to their criminal behavior. We don’t see a slow or steady decline into sadism.

Instead, Heavenly Creatures conveys the panicked act of desperation, which many consider “the heat of passion”. Of course, this presumes the aforementioned lesbian link that would make up the vast majority of the film today…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 how they envision it.

The new “Uncut Version” of Heavenly Creatures on DVD is even more telling. The film’s 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. Mostly, the extended version includes 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 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 redefines 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. (However, he has since said the 99-minute version is his favorite).

At its core, 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 film that really made Peter Jackson’s name. It was the work that indicated there was more to his muse than arterial spray and a love of all things gory. By toning down his aesthetic violence, he shows where true inspiration – and insanity – lie. Indeed, Heavenly Creatures presents the moment when the two Peter Jacksons became one. It remains a singular sensation.

RATING 9 / 10