Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures
Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Peter Jackson
Release Year: 1994
Runtime: 1h 39min

I’ve had a mouldering copy of this movie on a second-generation VHS tape sitting in a box for years. I inherited a VCR not too long ago — mine having bitten the dust decades before — and the tape I happened to grab to test it out was my copy of Heavenly Creatures. Through the fuzz and lines and warbles I watched the weirdo intro that plays like a 1950s tourist promotional film for Christchurch, New Zealand, before cutting to teenaged Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey soaked in blood and screaming as they run toward the camera. It’s one of the more memorable opening scenes in my film-watching history, and certainly made an impact when I first saw it in the theater in 1994. I was in for the re-watch. But there was no way in hell I was trying to watch this crappy dupe, which looked like scrambled porn and nonsense.

Thing is, it’s not streaming anywhere. Like anywhere. I’m not sure it ever was, but it’s not available to even purchase digitally as far as I can tell. So I did what any normal Gen-X shitheel does and went online and borrowed a DVD copy from my local library. Who had to in turn borrow it from another local library. I don’t know how this co-borrowing works, but they had it for me all ready to go a day later. I did have to hit it with some cleaning solution and a rag, as it looked like the last person may have handled it after eating a caramel apple. But, once cleaned up, the thing whirred into action on my ancient DVD player and I was on my way.

First, this is a Peter Jackson movie. Which is weird. In fact, his whole oeuvre is weird. He went from directing a few oddball horror-comedy movies, to this movie, to one more horror movie before being handed The Lord of the Rings movie franchise. There is absolutely nothing — unless I’m missing something — in his resume that would indicate he should be given the reigns of a beloved epic tale on that grand of a scale. Nothing. Unless you consider that he’s from New Zealand, and maybe they needed someone familiar with the filming location? That’s honestly the only thing I can think of. Because this movie would not indicate he was up for that. The memorable first twenty seconds of the movie aside, the thing is just plain hectic. It is seriously amped up. The shaky camera, the camera swings, the incredible high energy of the actors. All of it is just turnt up. In a way that, at times, is pretty unpleasant.

There are several ways one can write and direct a biopic. Or a true crime film. It can be super-sober and fact-based. Or you can interpret some of the obvious mental illness and/or delusions of the characters using absolutely bonkers visuals and constant hyper activity. Which is either meant to give us a sense of what the writer and director think is going on in the heads of the subjects, or it can take an otherwise kind of hum-drum story and just crank it into crazy land. And maybe distract from the fact your 90-minute movie might not have that much action, or much to say, beyond the sensationalism of two teenagers murdering one of their mothers in cold blood. Based on the true lives of Juliet Hulme (Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Lynskey), the tale is essentially about a 14-year-old outsider, Parker, who befriends the new fancy-pants transfer girl, Hulme, whose family has moved to Christchurch from their global travels in South Africa. It turns out the girls have more in common than it would initially appear and become quick friends. They share a very strong sense of make believe, inventing an entire world, afterlife and plan to write a bunch of fantasy adventure books about it together and take it to Hollywood to turn them into motion pictures. Which could be directed by… Peter Jackson! Foreshadowing at its best. Strange, right?

This doesn’t seem that unusual for a couple young girls to have a robust fantasy life, but it becomes clear after a while that this is more than a hobby; it’s an obsession. Like they actually believed that as young teens they could just take off for California from New Zealand and get their shit produced. Their kind of internal world is shown in this really creepy way, using the plasticine models they make of their characters in actual-size format interacting with them in some fantasy situations. The large, Gumby-looking, moldable clay humans are incredibly disturbing to look at. And I kind of wonder why they let Jackson get away with putting them on screen. Especially when it’s not really clear if these golem are supposed to be interacting romantically with young teens, or what the hell is going on. It must have been Jackson’s horror movie past, but I found any and all of these scenes to be really hard to watch. I kind of wish there was a different way he could have shown their fantasies. It kind of ruined the movie for me, frankly. That and the insane camera movements and the constant maniacal laughing and twirling and falling down of the actors. Which I imagine, being young people, is how they were directed to act.

Anyhow, I’m not going to besmirch the acting of either of the two leads. They’re super young and were clearly given the same direction when it came to the energy level. But something about the giggly, over-the-top way they act diminishes the impact when they drop the large rock on Parker’s mom’s head. They’re portrayed as so delusional and so cartoonish that it’s not particularly surprising when this goes down. I mean, it’s a true story, so we knew what happens will happen, but there doesn’t even seem to be a good reason for the murder other than Hulme has terrible parents who constantly abandon her in warm climates to move elsewhere under the guise of it being better for her tuberculosis, and Parker is big mad because her mom won’t let her 14-year-old go to the U.S. with her friend in some misguided attempt to escape their lives and fulfill some insane flight of fancy. I just can’t imagine these two girls acted quite as outlandishly as they’re portrayed in the film. There would have been way more red flags flying. Of course, we somehow miss teen behavior (and access to massive amounts of firearms and ammo) all the time in modern America, so I guess it’s possible.

My memory of the film is not what it is in reality. I recall a taught thriller with two great young acting performances. What I got was a kind of wacky, agitated experience that was unnecessarily hectic and oddly inconsistent. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good things here. There are moments where you get a glimpse of both actresses’ skills in those calmer moments where they aren’t asked to act like dreamy 1950s damsels. And some of the shots in the sun-drenched New Zealand countryside are cool. But, judging it against where film and television has brought us in 2023, it’s tough to watch this film without thinking that there was a lot of spitballing or “trying something” going on. Granted, this movie would cost $150 million these days, instead of the $5 million is did cost almost thirty years ago. And be filled with unnecessary CGI and be filmed in Vancouver [to cut it down from $180 million]. And while it may not be the most consistently good movie of the age, it is certainly an interesting time capsule of the burgeoning careers of two actresses who are still killing it consistently in the 2020s, and a director who has also climbed the heights of his craft.