Girls Gone Wild

Love and death in New Zealand

For a long while, Peter Jackson was held back from becoming a great director by his obsession with zombies, gore, and all things dark and stomach-churning. His first film, 1988's Bad Taste, featured a nasty alien fast-food franchise where humans were gobbled up like Big Macs, while his follow-up, 1993's Dead Alive, told the thoroughly yucky tale of a hapless lad forced to cope with the care and feeding of an elderly mom who has recently been transformed into a ravenous, flesh-eating zombie. Jackson had a certain flair for the grotesque, but few would have pegged him as a director with a masterpiece in him.

Heavenly Creatureswas that unlikely masterpiece. Based on the true story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two teenage New Zealand schoolgirls who were accused of bashing in the brains of Pauline's mother with a brick, the 1994 film begins two years before the killing and follows the girls as they grow increasingly obsessed with each other, face mounting resistance from all sides, and retreat ever further into a disturbing fantasy world of enchanted castles, clay princes and giant butterflies. Jackson's agile camera perfectly captures both the romantic giddiness and the operatic despair of adolescence. Even as we see the girls slowly descend into madness, we never completely lose our sympathy for them; they're simply desperate to be together, and if the pesky grown-ups in their lives would just leave them alone, everything would be fine. And when the girls eventually resort to matricide, it's a gut-wrenchingly awful moment, but we can understand, from the girls' perspective, how they were left with little choice.

In the leads, Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet are simply sensational; Winslet has of course gone on to become an A-list starlet in the wake of Titanic, but if she lives to be as old as Gloria Stuart, she may never come up with another performance as impressive as the one she turns in here. Lynskey hasn't been as fortunate as Winslet (over the past eight years, she has mainly turned up in tripe like Detroit Rock City and Coyote Ugly), but in Heavenly Creatures, she's just as twitchily compelling as Winslet—and that's no small feat.

In the years since Heavenly Creatures, Jackson has had a less-than-heavenly career. In 1996, he came to America and made The Frighteners, a big-budget version of the shrill spookfests so dear to his heart. That same year he co-directed Forgotten Silver, an oddball mockumentary that was little seen outside New Zealand. Then, following a five-year break, he resurfaced with a little number called Lord of the Rings, a big, fat, pretty bore that was so successful it's unlikely Jackson will attempt another art picture any time this millennium. Jackson is now being hailed as the new George Lucas, which will surely do wonders for his bank account but hardly bodes well for his prospects as an artist.

I don't mean to imply that Jackson is a sell-out; it took real conviction to bring off an epic like Rings, and the results are undeniably impressive. But, frankly, given the choice between another Tolkien picture and one of Jackson's gorefests, the gorefest sounds like a hell of a lot more fun. Heavenly Creatures seems destined to be an anomaly in Jackson's filmography, a fluke masterpiece nestled between the horror schlock and the bloated epics. Fans of Jackson's horror pictures and Rings don't know what they're missing; Heavenly Creatures rattles the nerves in a way that no brain-munching zombie or bloodthirsty orc ever could.

Heavenly Creatures screens at Chapman University, Argyros Forum 208, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 744-7694. Wed., 4 & 7 p.m. Free.

 
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