Heavenly Creatures (1994)

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Why Did I Watch It? Re-watching my fave 100 films as part of lockdown.

Cast, crew, etc.


I started getting into movies in my early teens. I lived in a small town, Busselton, in WA, and it was the 90s; a much harder time than now to pursue an interest. Before the internet, getting information was difficult. To find out about films I only had one daily newspaper, reviews on TV, and the tiny section of film books at the local library. Someone also gifted me ‘Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide’ for my birthday one year. But it was enough to get started.

We did not get that many first run films in Busselton. The local cinema was your classic, old school, one screen joint, and their program was limited. It was open Wednesday to Sunday, and they only screened a couple of movies at any given time. There would be one session each evening, showing whatever the latest blockbuster was, and then on the weekends a matinee, showing animated/family films. These films changed, at most, once a month. While I still went to a lot of these sessions, to access more interesting material I had to rely on the local video stores.

There were three of these in Busselton, and I had memberships at each. Plains Video, where I later got a part time job, was a big barn on the main highway. They had a huge collection of films, thousands, although it ran mostly to safe, middle of the road stuff. Then there was Star Video, a tiny little hole in the wall next to the local supermarket. This place had a meagre selection, existing primarily to cater for people who wanted to pick up a copy of ‘The Bodyguard’ at the same time they stocked up on milk and bread. I had a membership here largely out of a sense of completeness.

The final one was called ‘Hollywood Video’. This was on the main street of town, close to the beach. It was medium sized, and had a slightly better selection of movies; more obscure, cult, and arthouse titles than the other two. While I would rent a lot of new releases, overnight rentals, the stuff that hadn’t made it to the cinema, I also rented a lot of weeklies. These ranged in price from $5, for film’s that had most recently been new releases, to $2 for the older stuff that no one rented anymore. Like most video stores, Hollywood Video had a standing offer: 7 weekly films for $7.

During my peak, let’s-learn-about-cinema teen phase, I accessed this deal nearly every week. The selection process was not easy. It was not to be rushed, certainly. Selecting a good batch of 7 movies for $7 was like making a good mix tape; it required variety, and consideration of a range of factors. You needed different genres. I would want at least one venerable classic that I had read about. I would also want at least one $5 movie, something recent that I had missed. It was fun to have a wild card selection, some random thing that caught my eye. Something prestigey, an Oscar winner. Another film from a director I was learning about, a companion piece to something I had just seen. Maybe a favourite, something I had already watched 8 times.

There were a lot of factors to consider.

I would spend at least an hour weighing these choices, longer sometimes, and then take the 7 cassettes up to the front. Sunday was my usual day for acquiring that week’s films. It was the same girl serving each week, a young woman in her early twenties with dyed red hair, called Christie. Sunday arvo was a quiet time at the video store. Christie was bored out of her mind, so we would chat a bit while she was running my tapes through the system.

One time she said, ‘You know, you are the only person who comes in here, who takes such a long time to pick out your movies.’

I explained about the various considerations.

‘Haha! It is amazing how long you take to choose.’

Christie would sometimes ask about one title or another. Why had I picked that one? She was not interested in films herself, hardly ever watched them, the job was just a paycheck. But she was curious about some of the titles I selected.

I often picked ones, she said, that she had not seen anyone else rent.

‘Heavenly Creatures’ was one of these. Hollywood Video had one copy, buried at the end of their New Release shelf. It had not played at the local cinema, so I rented it as soon as it was available. It sticks in my mind as I was particularly excited to see it. The only Peter Jackson film I had seen when it came out was ‘Braindead’, which I had really liked. Now, I heard – probably through a review in the paper – Jackson was making not another gory zombie film, but an arthouse movie about a pair of teenage murderers, based on a true story. This sounded like quite a leap. I was intrigued.

I explained this to Christie.

She said, ‘These girls… killed their parents?’

‘One of their mothers. She was trying to stop them from seeing each other.’

I explained all about Peter Jackson, and Braindead. Serial killers.

‘Wow. That all sounds… disturbing.’

I could tell she thought this was a weird thing to want to watch.

My friend Jamie came with me to the video store sometimes, and we would rent something to watch together. He gave me the low down on Christie. Jamie always knew everything that was going on, as some people in small towns do.

Christie had been a year or two ahead of us in high school, one of the pretty, popular girls. And she had married her high school sweetheart, when she was 18. This guy, I forget his name, was a bloke’s bloke, well liked, handsome, a star on the town footy team. A dickhead, according to Jamie; drunk down the pub every night with his mates, and sleeping around, while Christie sat at home by herself.

So: Heavenly Creatures.

I loved it when I saw it in 1994, and I love it now.

The opening is especially good. An offputting, unexpected montage of vintage film stock about life in Christchurch in the 1950s, giving way to two glimpsed young women running through the bush, screaming, covered in blood. They rush up to a building, you have no context for what this is or where they are, and then charge right up to the camera. Both are hysterical. One screams.

‘Please help! It’s mummy, she’s terribly hurt!’

Cut to the opening credits. As simple a film making technique as you could imagine, but perfectly done.

The film becomes boldly imaginative as it progresses. It charts the friendship between Pauline Parker, a shy and insular local girl, and Juliette Hume, a confident, worldly type who has just arrived from England with her parents. The girls find in each other what they didn’t realise they needed; a confidante, someone to share their enthusiasms, and dreams.

But as the friendship advances, it becomes obsessively intense. This is neatly paralleled via the girls love of pop culture. They rave about their favourite movie stars and singers, but escalate from simple fandom, to beatifying them as saints, creating a hidden shrine for their likenesses. Later, they imagine these celebrities intruding on real events; Mario Lanza appears to serenade them, and Orson Welles, in character from ‘The Third Man’, chases them home from the cinema. Their imaginations are getting out of control.

Pauline and Juliette pour a lot of their energy into creating The Fourth World, an imaginary, Lord of the Rings style fantasy realm. Here their imaginings start to turn violent. Both girls are struggling to deal with issues in their own lives; Pauline finds her home life stultifying, and clashes with her mother about leaving school, Juliette’s parent’s marriage is on the rocks, and they are largely indifferent to her. The girls channel their frustrations into their creative expression, something any amateur artist could identify with. Now their characters blur with reality, wielding swords to attack their perceived enemies. It is only a short from there, to enacting these fantasies themselves.

Visual imagination

Jackson brings a wonderful visual style to this material. Pauline and Juliette create using clay, and the director renders their imaginings the same way; life size, mis-shapen green blobs, whose half human appearance makes them more un-nerving. As with LOTR, the stunning landscapes form the perfect backdrop to the fantasy sequences; New Zealand looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. Jackson also deploys voice over, an often misused technique, very effectively. In real life, Pauline kept a journal, and passages from it are read aloud over key moments. These are strange, surreal, remarkably well written; a tantalising look inside this person’s mind, that answers some questions, and deepens others.

Jackson was fortunate to find two remarkable young actors for his leads. Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet have gone on to storied careers, and this film is the first appearance for both. Lynskey stands out the most, which is fitting as it is ostensibly her story, but both actors are incredibly good. Their friendship rings true, you can see why they are drawn to each other, and both actors skilfully pilot the characters into new, uncharted territory, taking you with them. Their behaviour becomes disturbing, but the girls remain recognisably human, and you can see how they get to these dark places.

The final moments are almost unbearably tense. Repeated shots of ticking clocks – another very simple, old school technique – underline the horror of what is about to happen. The murder hangs over these scenes like a physical presence. You think: there is time to back out, change course, prevent this preventable disaster. This is part of the craft; Pauline and Juliette remain likeable. You do not want to see them as capable of this terrible crime. But when the moment does arrive, it is delivered unflinchingly; Jackson does not back away from showing exactly what they did. It is the only actual violence in the movie, lasts for five seconds, and lands with tremendous impact.

There is a lot more. I did not even touch on the girls possible same sex attraction to each other, and the 1950s response this engenders; Pauline is taken to a psychologist, who describes it as an unfortunate ‘affliction’. Or describe some of my favourite small moments; Jackson’s camera fluidly gliding into a sand castle the girls have built on the beach, and exploring the rooms; Juliette standing on the balcony of her house and singing an aria to Pauline. Is this a real event? Just in Pauline’s mind? I have seen the film many times and could not say, but it makes the hairs on my arm stand up, each time.

An always surprising movie. Jackson was headed for Hollywood after this – ‘The Frighteners’ was next, and then LOTR – and while he made good films subsequent, this remains his best. A unique mixture of his own unusual sensibilities, and genre familiarity, a strange true story, and two astonishing performances. Brilliant.

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