Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The New Cult Canon: Heavenly Creatures

Illustration for article titled The New Cult Canon: Heavenly Creatures

I worship the power of these lovely two

With that adoring love known to so few

’Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel

That two such heavenly creatures are real.

—Pauline Yvonne Parker, “The Ones That I Worship”

On June 22, 1954, in Victoria Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, 16-year-old Pauline Parker and her 15-year-old best friend Juliet Hulme bludgeoned Parker’s mother, Honora Rieper, to death with a chunk of brick stuffed into an old stocking. The murder and the trial that followed gained huge notoriety in the country because of the girls’ ages, the pitiless nature of their conspiracy, and the intimations of lesbianism and insanity—connected in mental-health circles at the time—that coursed through their friendship. Predictably, it was also held up as evidence of moral decline, one of those “kids these days” stories that get advanced in the face of the seemingly inexplicable. Parker and Hulme each served five years in prison for the crime, and were released under the stipulation that they never meet again.


Back in 1994, director Peter Jackson seemed like the last person in the world who should be telling this story. Starting with 1987’s Bad Taste, and continuing with Meet The Feebles in 1989 and Dead Alive in 1992, Jackson had come to specialize in homemade, effects-driven “splatstick” comedies that took the horror-comedy of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies to new gross-out extremes. Bad Taste centered on an alien plot to grind up humans into fast-food products for an intergalactic chain called Crumb’s Crunchy Delights; Dead Alive closes with a sequence of mass zombie slaughter that a sump pump would clean up more efficiently than a mop. Of course, we know now that Jackson had much, much grander ambitions for his career, and with the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and King Kong, he established himself as a skilled driver of gas-guzzling science-fiction/fantasy behemoths.

Serving as a bridge between the hand-crafted splatter artisan of old and the epic visionary of new, Heavenly Creatures represents not only a key transition into critical respectability—not that his splatstick wasn’t awesome, mind—but perhaps the best use of Jackson’s talents to date. Obviously, the story requires a seriousness and emotional gravity that Jackson hadn’t attempted before, but a great part of the film’s vitality is that he doesn’t abandon the frenetic energy of his early work. A more austere director might have strangled the life out of this mad tragedy, but Jackson has the audacity to risk a certain amount of vulgarity if it means better connecting with the terribly insular world of these two young conspirators. It’s a delicate tack to take—and probably would not have been possible four years after the crime instead of 40—but Heavenly Creatures seeks to understand and communicate the intensity of adolescence and close friendship, and how the impulse to create can also destroy.

Relegating the hoopla of the trial and everything that followed to a white-on-black postscript, Jackson and Fran Walsh, his wife and longtime script collaborator, focus narrowly on Pauline and Juliet’s point of view, at the expense of all others. This courts charges of tastelessness as much as, well, Bad Taste, especially because the adults, including the victim, must be viewed through the increasingly distorted lens of two girls who come to see everyone as an obstacle to their friendship. Yet at all times, even as Jackson and Walsh strongly identify with Pauline and Juliet’s fertile imaginations, Heavenly Creatures careens toward tragedy in a breathtaking rush, with every swoop of the camera whooshing the audience closer to the inevitable. The movie feels dangerously out of control in the most evocative possible sense.

Among other things, Heavenly Creatures is remembered as the film that introduced a young Kate Winslet to the world. And the part of Juliet requires a certain movie-star magnetism that she projects with bright-eyed relish. Having moved to Christchurch from England, the wealthy Juliet immediately asserts herself as smarter and worldlier than her girls’-school classmates, and her arrival is the spark that her friendship with Pauline nurtures into flame. Equally good is Melanie Lynskey as Pauline, a sullen wallflower who comes alive when Juliet takes her under her wing and introduces her to wild fantasies about the Royals, the wonders of Italian opera singer Mario Lanza and dreamboat James Mason, and the unspeakable hideousness of one Orson Welles. Soon, Pauline and Juliet spend their time constructing narratives around the Kingdom of Borovnia, lorded over by Charles and his wife Deborah and terrorized by their vengeful son Diello, who runs his sword through anyone who gets in his way. Animating the girls’ obsessively detailed plasticine figures, Jackson accesses their storybook world to dazzling effect, as in this sequence, where Pauline daydreams her way through her first sexual experience:

Notice in that clip that Pauline (alternately called Yvonne, her middle name) cries out for Deborah, who appears as her beloved Juliet, and she herself becomes “Gina” in this alternate world. That happens more and more as the film goes on, and Pauline especially disappears from the unpleasant realities of her life—in this case, from a scary and desultory encounter—and clings to her friend and the fictions they’ve created together. For her part, Juliet suffers from the dual isolation of being pent up in hospitals with tuberculosis and having neglectful parents who would rather travel the world than be burdened by her. The bond between her and Pauline may be creative, but it’s really more rooted in loneliness and a desperate need to connect to someone, anyone; the intensity of their relationship is fueled in part by the fact that they have no other relationships. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to call them lesbians—after all, they’ve got Mario Lanza and James Mason to dream about—but they cling madly to each other, and whatever happens physically between them seems more a byproduct of intimacy than evidence of their sexual proclivities.

Heavenly Creatures pokes fun at the hysterical idea, advanced at the time, that madness and homosexuality are in any way related, and instead focuses persuasively on the combustible dynamic of this particular friendship. As Pauline and Juliet get closer and delve deeper into their imaginary universe, they become convinced they’re more special than the drab, ordinary clods they’re forced to associate with at home, at school, and on the streets. Juliet even proposes that when they die, they’re going to a rarified paradise called “the fourth world,” which she says is “like heaven, only better, because there aren’t any Christians there.” James Mason and Mario Lanza are saints in this place, which is a lush secular wonderland of “music, art, and pure enjoyment.” According to Juliet, only 10 people in the world have “an extra part of their brain” that can appreciate the fourth world, and two days out of the year, they’re given a key to the place. Here’s a look:


It’s no coincidence that this glimpse of paradise comes out of despair, and the worse things get for Juliet and Pauline, the further they sink into irrationality. The last straw is when Juliet’s parents announce their intention to move her to South Africa, and Pauline begins to see her mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) as the obstacle ultimately keeping them apart. Their plan to get rid of this obstacle is the height of delusion, and doesn’t hold up to a second’s reflection; if we didn’t know the true story already, we could easily guess what would happen. At this point, Jackson quickens the already fevered pace to outright delirium, following a bravura Orson Welles stalking sequence (spilling over from a screening of The Third Man) with the nerve-shattering events leading up to Honora’s murder. Doing her best Kubrick stare—that hollow, mirthless look perfected by Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket—Pauline locks into her tragic course. “Next time I write in this diary, mother will be dead,” she says via voiceover. “How odd, but how pleasing.” (Jackson and Walsh took the text word for word from Parker’s actual diary.)

Heavenly Creatures, to its immense credit, isn’t the film of a moralist. Jackson doesn’t cast judgment on these girls or come to any conclusions about society at large—and for that, at a minimum, he’s done as an artist what politicians and cultural commentators are virtually incapable of doing. In his hands, this notorious true-crime story goes from an inexplicable tragedy to an explicable tragedy, one that swallows up perpetrators and victim alike. Jackson’s caffeinated direction captures the sickening force of Juliet and Pauline’s dangerous fantasies as they evolve, but without vilifying them or excusing what they’ve done. For a filmmaker whose frenetic camera and fisheye lenses suggest a world spinning out of control, he toes a very thin tightrope.


Coming Up:

Next week: Femme Fatale

Mar. 12: Beau Travail

Mar. 19: The Way Of The Gun

Mar. 26: The Room