210. HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

“We realized why Debora and I have such extraordinary telepathy, and why people treat us and look at us the way they do. It is because we are mad—we are both stark raving mad!”–Pauline Parker, diary entry

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Melanie Lynskey, , Sarah Peirse

PLOT: Pauline, a socially awkward young teen, finds a friend in Juliet, a new arrival at her girls’ school in 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand. Juliet is witty and has traveled the world, and together she and Pauline invent a rich epic about the royal family of the fictional kingdom Borovnia, complete with stories chronicling the dynasty’s adventures and clay figurines Juliet molds to represent the main characters. As their relationship grows closer and develops a sexual component, the girls shut out the rest of the world, living out a fantasy of shared hallucinations and referring to each other by invented names, until their parents grow concerned and try to separate them.

Still from Heavenly Creatures (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a real-life murder that shocked New Zealand in the 1950s. The film’s voiceovers are direct quotes from Pauline Parker’s diaries.
  • After being released from prison, Juliet Hulme became a successful writer of mysteries working under her new name, Anne Perry. She publicly revealed her identity as Heavenly Creatures was being produced. Pauline Parker did not wish to be found, but was later discovered working with handicapped children.
  • After the film was released Perry stated that the two girls had never had a lesbian relationship, as had been commonly supposed, although this denial was not public information when Heavenly Creatures‘ script was written. Pauline’s diary entries clearly hinted at a sexual relationship, but these could have been a young girl’s confused fantasies.
  • Heavenly Creatures was a totally unexpected arthouse outing from New Zealand director Peter Jackson, whose previous works had all been outrageous exploitation films: the gory Bad Taste, the transgressive puppet show Meet the Feebles, and the zombie comedy Dead-Alive [AKA Brain Dead].
  • Nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (where it lost, understandably, to Pulp Fiction).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The plasticine Borovnians, particularly the homicidal Diello, who decapitates a homophobic psychiatrist, among his other crimes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Fourth World; deflowering hallucination; hideous Orson Welles.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Adolescent melodrama blossoms into mature tragedy in the delirious Heavenly Creatures. Odd, overdramatic lighting schemes and a flighty camera track two young girls’ trajectory from obsessive daydreaming to outright madness. Peter Jackson’s stunning, surreal realizations of the girls’ fantasies about celebrity heartthrobs and a kingdom of killers sculpted from clay put the film over the top.


Trailer for heavenly Creatures

COMMENTS: In 1994, if you imagined Peter Jackson directing a movie about two teenage lesbian murderers lost in a fantasy world, Heavenly Creatures is not the film you would see in your mind’s eye. Until this movie, Jackson was only known for his low budget splatter comedies (and in some circles for the scandalous underground puppet show parody Meet the Feebles). Yet, Jackson’s sensibilities somehow proved perfect for this material; his flair for melodrama and exaggeration matched the young girls feverish temperaments, while restraining his imagination inside the bounds of a historical drama brought out artistic depths and subtleties no one would have guessed at from seeing his first three movies. Working with his largest budget, he was able to realize his visual fantasies on a lavish scale, creating the flowery feminine landscapes of the Fourth World and the uncanny royal family of Borovnia. Luck, as well, played a role in the success of the movie, as he was fortunate to cast two young actresses—the intense Melanie Lynskey and future superstar Kate Winslet—who were capable of honoring the movie’s serious intent. These were difficult roles for young actresses, who were both debuting on film and who were asked to embody very adult themes, without much assistance from their adult costars. Jackson’s vision makes the film memorable, but Lynskey and Winslet made it possible; without their confident performances, simultaneously naive and knowing, overwrought and realistic, Heavenly Creatures would have been doomed to failure.

The core of Heavenly Creatures is not the murder, but the friendship between Pauline and Juliet. Told exclusively from Pauline’s subjective viewpoint, the film sucks us in to the girls’ taut relationship. When they break with reality, we understand how and why, even as our foreknowledge makes us dread where their imaginations are taking them. The film makes us feel Pauline’s loneliness and alienation in a world before Juliet, and to see how the glamorous English girl’s arrival brightens her dreary and friendless existence. Although cast based on their similarity to the actual Pauline and Juliet, the two actress’ looks could have come from Hollywood central casting: the blonde is sunny and bright, the brunette gloomy and brooding. The girls’ delusionalities spring from separate sources, but they are resonating waves of madness that feed and reinforce each other. Juliet has the smugness of a smart adolescent, who feels herself above everyday bourgeois morality (“only the best people fight against all obstacles,” she moons to Pauline when it appears they may be separated). Pauline, on the other hand, is motivated not by her own sense of superiority, but by resentment. Her signature look is the glower, directed at teachers, parents, doctors, or anyone who will not get out of her way and let her do what she wants. Together, the two indulge their taste for fantastic literature and share pop culture crushes on Mario Lanza and James Mason. Their relationship becomes eroticized as they spend more and more time together, shutting out the rest of the world.

Movies generally present imagination as an unfettered good (“there is no world I know like the world of pure imagination“) and as a force to be nurtured in the young. Heavenly Creatures is one of a few films to show us diseased imagination, fantasy as something to be feared. Imagination can help a child deal with a hopelessly bleak situation, as it does for the orphaned Jeliza-Rose in Tideland; but when your problems are normal teenage troubles, chafing under parental rules or not getting enough attention at home, fleeing into fantasy can be dangerous. Imagination becomes a drug for Pauline and Juliet, a narcotic and hallucinogen rolled into one, and they are junkies for the alternate worlds they create.

The girls’ games start out innocently, re-enacting moments from pulpy adventure and romance novels like “Biggles of the Camel Squadron.” Juliet, however, has more peculiar ideas in her head. She has invented an afterlife called “the Fourth World.” It’s a paradise of art and pleasure that is like Heaven, but “better, because there aren’t any Christians,” and it’s inhabited by the pop-culture “saints” (like Mario Lanza) revered by teen girls in the 1950s. It’s harmless silliness, and Pauline follows Juliet’s lead in helping to populate the imaginary realm, eager for the approval of this exciting, worldly girl. At some point, however, the shared fantasy becomes more attractive than the girls’ reality of dull school days and squabbling, neglectful parents. The young ladies indulge each other to the point where pleasant fantasies morph into full-fledged delusions.

The first break with reality comes when a distraught Juliet, riddled by fear of parental abandonment, claims to actually see into the Fourth World, and tells Pauline to “come with me”; the background wavers like a Hunter S. Thompson mescaline trip and a garden grows before the girls’ eyes, complete with roving unicorns and butterflies the size of birds. Pauline, according to her diary entries, believes it is a mystical vision, a gateway into another reality, and that she and Juliet are chosen ones with “an extra part of our brain” that allows them to peer into Paradise. In a parallel line of imagination, the girls continue to elaborate the fantasy realm of Borovnia, acting out critical events in the kingdom’s history. Pauline contributes the foreboding figure of Diello to their shared mythology; the young prince “who slaughters his nannies whenever the fancy takes him.” Diello shows up in the casual revenge fantasies of both girls, dispatching annoying adult authority figures with a plastic sneer molded on his face. When Juliet is shut up in a sanitarium with tuberculosis, Pauline writes her every day; or, rather, she writes love letters to Queen Deborah, in character as King Charles. Gradually, the girls’ fantasies become even more elaborate, and Jackson brings them to life with a frightening literalism. The hated Orson Welles, still in black and white, comes down off the screen of The Third Man and chases the pair to the bedroom, where they fall into each others’ arms squealing in terror and excitement. In the major paroxysm of baroque fantasy, saintly tenor Mario Lanza sings a love song for the girls at a Borovnian ball. The citizenry—all played by live actors dressed in uncanny gray latex suits that make them look like clay figurines come to life—whirl around in a waltz, a masquerade that ends with Diello’s crashing axe freeing a banner reading “MAD” that unfurls over the royal battlements.

After this climax of derangement, Jackson reels the movie back to reality as Pauline, once the follower, now the leader, plots the crime that turns the story from a tale of teenage imaginations run wild into a real life horror show. The murder itself is realistically brutal in execution, but in concept it is as fantastically conceived as the rest of the girls’ imaginary world. What could Pauline and Juliet possibly hope to gain by committing this senseless murder that they could not have achieved with less drama and danger by simply running away from home? At this point, they are the only things that are real to each other; the rest of the world exists only to supply raw material for their fantasies. Their passion is a microscope that shrinks the world to a tiny point where any disapproval of their devotion takes up their whole field of vision. Murder is just another exciting adventure for them to share, only as real or false as the Fourth World itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“On a loonier level, Mr. Jackson also disguises extras as life-size clay figures to flesh out the girls’ private mythology (there is even a clay Orson Welles) and executes tricks like sending his camera racing through the interior of a sand castle. Weirdly ingenious until they become exhausting, such methods overpower the film’s humbler figures even more than they have to.“–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Imagine a slasher thriller set inside the Secret Garden and directed by Ken Russell at his most camera-ecstatic, and you’ll have an idea of the movie’s luridly intense pop delirium.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

“Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh take pains to examine the weird trajectory of the Parker-Hulme friendship, and imagine what happened to make it go wrong. They refuse to see Juliet and Pauline as monstrous sprouts from a demon seed, but demonstrate the girls’ humanity and vulnerability — suggesting that each of us, ultimately, has a similar shadow inside.”–Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Heavenly Creatures – Official Site  – Includes ten video clips from the movie

IMDB LINK: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Fourth World – The Heavenly Creatures Website – A large fansite with links to lots of information on the real life Parker-Hulme murders

Heavenly Creatures | Film – Several pages devoted to Heavenly Creatures at NZ On Screen, a non-profit New Zealand film site

Back in the Day: Peter Jackson releases his film Heavenly Creatures – New Zealand television piece on the Parker-Hulme case and the movie

Heavenly Creatures (Comparison: Theatrical Version – Uncut Version) – An extremely detailed description of the differences between the 99 minute theatrical release and the 109 uncut version

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century – A nonfiction examination of the Parker-Hulme affair

DVD INFO: Heavenly Creatures is available on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) in “uncut” versions. The only extra provided on either release is a trailer.

A word about the “uncut” and “theatrical” versions of the film. Heavenly Creatures was first shown in New Zealand with a running time of about 109 minutes. Before it was theatrically distributed worldwide, about ten minutes were cut out so that the film ran 99 minutes. The shorter version is said to be Peter Jackson’s preferred cut, and that is the version that is shown on television or streaming services.

Speaking of streaming services, Heavenly Creatures is available on-demand (rent or buy), with a listed runtime of 109 minutes. At the time of this writing the movie was also in Netflix’s streaming catalog.

(This movie was nominated for review by “becca.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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  1. Saw this years ago right on the heels of all of Jackson’s prior work. I suppose the working title for this movie may have been “Good Taste.”

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