Revisiting the film she loved unconditionally as a teenager, Jess McCabe still finds its portrayal of two young perpetrators of a horrific crime highly compelling
SPOILER ALERT: this review gives away crucial elements of the story
Jackson’s film, originally released in 1994 and currently reissued on Blu-ray and remastered DVD, sticks closely to the facts of the case – the murder scene was even shot on the same forest path where the real crime took place. However, Jackson famously didn’t film in the exact spot of the murder, after the forest went eerily quiet.
Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) moves with her upper-class English parents to Christchurch, New Zealand, after having traipsed around various bits of the British Empire as a young girl. She joins a new school and quickly forms a friendship with Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey). Bonding over “the world’s greatest tenor” Mario Lanza, a strong imagination, and because they were both sickly children, the 14-year-old girls fall into an intense romantic friendship and immerse themselves in creating a fantasy world populated by queens, kings and lovers, in which an elaborate intrigue develops involving murder, love and sex.
Meanwhile, Pauline, who is from a working-class family and also a typical teenager thinking her parents don’t “get” her, fantasises about cutting off her own parents and living in Juliet’s apparently charmed world, practically moving into her new best friend’s house.
Jackson displays his usual virtuosity with special effects. He took the amazing creativity from his earlier horror comedies, like Bad Taste, and put it to good use in representing the imaginary world and psychology of these teenage murderers.
From plasticine models of the characters in Juliet and Paul’s epic story, we trip into a full-sized plasticine world of castles and dancing characters. Particularly convincing is the scene when the girls go and see Orson Wells’ The Third Man; Juliet has worked them both up into a hysterical fear of Orson, which they get enjoyably caught up in, believing he is chasing them home from the cinema.
When their parents decide the girls’ friendship is “unhealthy”, aided by a “diagnosis” of homosexuality by a psychologist, the decision is taken to split them up, with Juliet to be sent to live with distant relatives in South Africa. To forestall the event, the girls cold-heartedly plot to murder Pauline’s mother.
During the real-life trial in 1954, a lot of hysteria was kicked up in the press over the girls’ lesbianism and the decline of morality – suggesting that the sheer intensity of their romance somehow led them to committing matricide. Meanwhile, some have argued that Heavenly Creatures just replicates the cinematic trope of killer-lesbians or psycho-lesbians .
Teenagers committing murder has become a genre in an unto itself (from Heathers to Secret History), testing and representing adult culture’s fear of young people.
Stories of teenagers, who tend to be (partly self)alienated from adult society, committing murder somehow manage to reflect these adult fears and yet, as they are aimed at a young audience, they are pitched as relatable enough to act as a catharsis for the drama of being a young person. Notably, Winslet and Lynskey were the same age during the filming as the characters at the end of the movie.
In the search to explain how something so horrific could happen, that two teenage girls could conspire to murder one of their mothers, people reach out and try to pin it on something. The girls’ sexuality or their immersion in an imaginary world makes for an easy target.
That’s clearly what happened in the aftermath of the real case; however, Heavenly Creatures, co-written by Fran Walsh and her husband (Peter Jackson), starts off getting us to sympathise with Paul and Juliet.
The film takes a situation which is unimaginably horrific and helps the audience see two perpetrators as humans and understand them, without excusing what they did. In fact, both the murder itself and anti-mother sentiment permeating the film were pretty horrifying to me at the time I first saw it, because it was only a year or two after my own mother died.
Rather than representing them as inherently evil sociopaths, as the press did at the time of the murders, Jackson and Walsh went back to extensively interview people who had known the girls and also read Pauline’s diaries that feature in the film.
In the resulting film, the focus is on what are some hardly uncommon experiences for teenage girls: being angry and upset with your parents, inability to relate to adults, constructing imaginative worlds (although this feels to me like something from younger childhood), and intense romantic relationships with other girls.
Rewatching the film as an adult, I wasn’t able to muster much sympathy for their melodramatic and over-the-top viewpoint – how many minutes of this film are taken up by weeping?!
But I feel like I also have to leave space in this review for how I used to feel about this film as a teenager, by which I mean I loved it. We, the teenage audience of Heavenly Creatures, were sucked into the fantasy world with the actresses, and also into the intense romantic friendship/relationship that developed.
As Sara Knox argues in this fan-club essay:
The film, which draws on the same materials as previous accounts – the transcripts of Pauline’s diary produced for the trial, the reports of the defence and prosecution psychiatrists – succeeds where other analyses have failed precisely because it portrays this relationship not as pathological, but as the freaky end of a normal continuum.
Heavenly Creatures is much more disturbing than something like Heathers, because that film had a hero character: Winona Ryder flirts with some extremely dark shit, and with Christian Slater, but ends up clicking firmly back to reality once the murdering begins, and deciding she’s not a sociopath. Which, despite adult worries, is what the audience of young people could also relate to! Heavenly Creatures doesn’t have an ‘out’ like that; there is no hero, both the girls commit a horrific, horrific murder.
Because this is a Peter Jackson film, it might be worth asking: is this not just a horrific film, but actually a horror film? If so, who or what is the “monster” here? Is it about how the monstrous act of matricide was committed by two frighteningly relatable teenagers?
Or is the “monster” a manifestation of the extremes of the condition of being a teenage girl?
Addendum, or disturbing facts about the real-life crime:
Juliet Hulme changed her name and went on to become a relatively successful author of historical detective books. Meanwhile, when Pauline Parker sold her house in the 2000s, these drawings were found.