Stopping someone on the street in 1993 and asking him or her who Peter Jackson is would have likely resulted in a blank stare and a shrug. Only a tiny cult following paid any attention to Jackson’s first three features, all of which were cheerful combinations of slapstick comedy and grotesque horror (though Meet The Feebles substitutes scatological puppets for the over-the-top gore of Bad Taste and Dead Alive). Among those who were familiar with his work at that time, the number who anticipated that his next film would transform him overnight into a hugely acclaimed and thoroughly respectable figure—on the road to winning multiple Oscars, including Best Picture—was most likely zero. Not even Jackson himself might have guessed that, though he was surely well aware that Heavenly Creatures, which was inspired by a notorious real-life New Zealand murder case from the 1950s, represented a major departure for him.
It also turned out to represent the ideal balance between his newfound ambition and his vulgar roots, and remains his finest hour. Transitional works tend to be somewhat bumpy. But Jackson miraculously found in the saga of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme a means of expanding his range enormously without losing sight of his unique creative gifts. For one thing, the film’s central relationship is an obsessive one, allowing for performances that straddle the line between naturalistic and stylized. (It helps that the two unknown teenagers he cast in the lead roles were Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet.) For another, Parker and Hulme led an uncommonly rich fantasy life, and Parker’s diaries, from which Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh derived much of their screenplay, go into great detail about the girls’ equivalent of Middle Earth, which they called Borovnia. They claimed they could actually visit this magical kingdom, and the movie, which remains inside Pauline’s head virtually from start to finish, chooses to take them at their word. Here’s a typical example, in which Pauline (Lynskey) disassociates in the middle of having sex for the first time.
You can see Jackson being Jackson in the second shot, as Pauline climbs some sort of trellis (it doesn’t appear to be a fire escape) to reach her lover’s window. Rather than place the camera somewhere conventional, he booms it over the entire backyard of the house next door, hurdling a dog, a massive pile of random junk, and the fence separating the two properties. The showy movement works in this context because it echoes Pauline and Juliet’s general breathlessness, whereas it increasingly feels like a needless affectation in Jackson’s later films. You can also see Jackson not being Jackson (the old Jackson, anyway) when he holds on the empty window for some time after Pauline and her beau are no longer visible. It’s not a purely stagnant moment, as her voice-over narration continues, but staring at nothing still requires a certain degree of confidence. It’s almost certainly intentional, too, rather than an editing-room necessity; when a film uses as much voiceover as Heavenly Creatures does, the timing has to be very well planned.
Although Pauline sounds quite excited about her first true sexual experience, she doesn’t look terribly excited as “Nicholas” (not the guy’s actual name; she’s conflated him with one of her and Juliet’s fictional Borovnia residents) pumps away on top of her. Before long, she’s abandoned her dreary surroundings for a meadow just outside of Borovnia’s castle, shown here in detail for the first time in the movie. The twittering of birds is soon joined by the voice of Mario Lanza, singing “Funiculì, Funiculà,” a 19th-century Neapolitan song that I’m surprised to find has also been recorded by the Grateful Dead and Alvin And The Chipmunks. Lanza is one of the girls’ celebrity crushes, along with movie stars like James Mason and Mel Ferrer, so it’s not terribly surprising to hear him crooning. It is a surprise, however, when Pauline enters the castle and Lanza is standing there singing in person… but in the form of a life-size clay figure.
The inhabitants of Borovnia show Jackson at his creative peak. Numerous movies have established a precarious bridge between reality and fantasy, but this particular halfway measure is a stroke of genius. Pauline and Juliet had previously sculpted a Plasticine figure for each of their characters, and one would expect to see those characters come alive in Pauline’s imagination, looking like normal human beings. Instead, Jackson blows them up to human scale, but retains their Plasticine appearance, complete with mouths that dead-end about half an inch into the person’s jaw. Digital effects were becoming more sophisticated by 1994—Heavenly Creatures was in fact the first project tackled by Weta Digital, Jackson’s special effects house, which would go on to do the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Avatar, Prometheus, etc.—but while the dude who gets sliced in half is clearly ones and zeros, most of the clay people are actors in makeup and latex costumes. It’s a truly uncanny spectacle, unlike anything ever attempted, and it functions brilliantly as a visual reminder of how limited Pauline and Juliet’s understanding of the world remains. Nothing is quite real to them, and that lack of perspective will inform the crime they jointly commit at the end of the film.
Back in the real world, Pauline is still having sex with “Nicholas,” and Jackson provides a couple of quick flashes of his sweaty face about midway through the scene. As soon as his presence registers with her, however, she shuts her eyes and returns to Borovnia, this time unmistakably as an act of will on her part rather than as an involuntary episode. She’s looking for “Deborah,” an alter ego for Juliet (Winslet). The real Hulme, who reinvented herself as mystery writer Anne Perry after being released from prison, has denied that she and Parker were lovers, but Heavenly Creatures suggests a physical attraction between them, and Juliet definitely looks like an object of desire as seen in Pauline’s head. (In fairness, Hulme hadn’t yet made her denial, as nobody knew Anne Perry was really Hulme until shortly after the film’s release.) When “Nicholas” turns up as a Plasticine man in her vision, snapping her permanently back to reality, her disappointment is evident in the massive scowl on her face, plus a single tear rolling down her cheek in the scene’s final shot. Jackson gives her emotions full weight, pushing in for a closeup that crowds her dorky lover out of the frame. He was equally at home in both worlds, for perhaps the only time in his career.