Heavenly Creatures is notable for one major reason, and that's the careers that it started. The New Zealand film starred a little known television actress named Kate Winslet in her big screen debut, plucked a high schooler named Melanie Lynskey out of total obscurity, and was directed by a man who was then known for his work with extreme gore horror comedies, but would go on to direct basically everything that JRR Tolkien ever wrote (aka Peter Jackson). For this reason alone, it is worthy of at least a little attention.
Add to this the fact that Heavenly Creatures has a naturally engaging story about two teenagers who brutally murdered one of their mothers in a bizarre, high-profile case that took the relatively violence-free New Zealand by storm back in the 1950s, and its place on this list should be fairly obvious.
There are a lot of ways that this movie could have been made, and almost all of them would have left it veering dangerously towards Lifetime territory. Jackson manages to steer the film away from manufactured melodrama (instead focusing on the more organic kind of drama that teenage girls are all too capable of creating for themselves), and imbues the proceedings with a surreal quality that adds to the bizarre nature of the famous murder case.
So what does the average person have to fear in idyllic 1950s New Zealand, considering that it narrowly escaped the plague of horrifying spiders and snakes that call Australia home? Teenagers with too much time on their hands and a serious case of Woe is Me I'm Misunderstood. These teenagers in particular.
They might not seem like the murderous types in the picture, but if you watch about five minutes of Heavenly Creatures, you can't help but notice how closely they teeter along the edge of the deep end.
Melanie Lynskey plays Pauline/Yvonne/Gina. Why does she have so many names? Other than providing the film with an opportunity to showcase her alienation and willingness to abandon a solid identity in favor of a rich fantasy life, I have no idea. She's a cross, pudgy little thing who spends most of her time glaring and/or gushing rapturously over her favorite male opera singer. That is, until she meets Juliet. Then she's in love.
I learned after watching Heavenly Creatures that both of the girls denied having a sexual relationship with one another. The film seems to have other ideas, and it seems quite clear that in this version of their story, they have, if not a sexual relationship, certainly a romantic one. Peter Jackson pushes in on Pauline with a romantic zoom when she sees Juliet dancing in slow motion, the way that movies normally do with straight people, and there’s little doubt that these two girls are totally in love.
Granted, I didn’t have a ton of close female friends when I was growing up, but is it normal to joyfully disrobe while running through the woods and singing a little tune? Is that what everyone was doing when I was home writing Harry Potter fanfic? I did always wonder.
Anyway, the girls are not likeable or sympathetic really, and certainly not paragons of stability, but in their own bizarre way they are understandable characters. You can see how an unhappy loner and a girl who is clever and extroverted but emotionally neglected could end up clinging to each other in such an unhealthy, obsessive way. It's interesting, because some of their behavior is so typical of girls their age: they experience every emotion like it's the first time it has ever been felt by anyone ever, they fancy themselves much cleverer and more worldly than they really are, and they're convinced that every adult in their lives is either a gibbering idiot or somehow out to get them. But then they swiftly cross the line from typical disaffected teens in a codependent relationship to murderous and sociopathic, and we've got real problems.
Peter Jackson branches out with this film, going against the typically gruesome fare that he was known for at the time and instead creating a delicately dreamlike world for these girls to inhabit that mimics the fantasy life they retreat to more and more as the film goes on. Creatively intelligent, they begin by writing a novel together, but in actuality create a world that allows them to abandon real life altogether, a disconnect that we see expanded throughout Heavenly Creatures. Their fantasy world is rich and vivid, but also genuinely unsettling.
(Chances that I will have nightmares about the creepy clay people: 112%)
At the end of the day, is this film my cup of tea? Maybe not. But it's worth a watch if only to see its now famous cast and crew, people who have gone on to have a huge effect on the film industry, at the very beginning of their careers. Peter Jackson shows his versatility as a director, and the two young actresses are able to channel intense emotions very naturally. Melanie Lynskey can brood with the best of them, and Kate Winslet puts on this slightly manic quality, her words tumbling out a shade too quickly for her to seem entirely normal.
Until next time, I leave you with this Missed Connection: Jed Brophy, Pauline's slightly creepy boy toy who is way too old to be pulling the whole, "I'm freezing, can I hop under the covers with you?" thing, also starred in the Hobbit franchise as the dwarf Nori. Who knew?