"Heavenly Creatures" is the fact-based story of two teen-agers who have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality and form an obsessive attachment that leads to murder. This fascinating, dark look at adolescent fantasy plays like a combination of David Cronenberg's creepy "Dead Ringers" and Orson Welles' film about the Leopold and Loeb case, "Compulsion."
In writer-director Peter Jackson's film, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) is a bored private school student in idyllic Christchurch, New Zealand, circa 1952. She is a moody but creative introvert. Her working-class parents (Sarah Peirse, Simon O'Connor) can't handle Pauline on an intellectual level, but they are doing their best for her.
But Pauline's world is brightened by a vivacious newcomer, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, currently of "Sense and Sensibility"), the pretty and brilliant daughter of the new college rector (Clive Morrison). The rector is an absent-minded-professor type, and his wife (Diana Kent) is a glamorous marriage counselor who actually may be the problem in at least one of her clients' marriages.
Pauline and Juliet find that they each suffered a terrible childhood disease that meant isolation from their families. They also realize that they are each very good at creating escapist fantasies, and they proceed to create one together to escape the boring existence of the normal world around them.
"We have decided how sad it is for other people that no one can fully appreciate our genius," Pauline writes in her diary (from which the voice-over narrative for the film is taken).
The girls become inseparable, forming a Baby-Sitters Club of the bizarre, in which they begin actually taking the names of the romantic medieval characters they have created, Charles and Deborah. Their parents become concerned too late that the relationship has taken an unhealthy turn, but their efforts to correct things only make matters worse.
Finally, the two girls decide that one of their parents is the greatest obstacle standing in the way of their togetherness ... so, of course, she must go.
Jackson has done a masterful job of combining a wonderful sense of place and time in ultra-normal Christchurch with (through some great special effects) the alternate world of Pauline and Juliet's fantasies. He daringly mixes straight-up documentary style with swooping cameras and bizarre images. Particularly effective is the emotionally charged murder scene in which every sense is heightened, and in which you will swear you can even smell the flowers in the background.
Lynskey and Winslet are nothing short of brilliant as Pauline and Juliet. Aided by the dynamite script by Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh, they create two unforgettable movie psychotics disguised as normal teens. All the supporting characters are terrific, but Peirse is a real standout as Pauline's well-meaning but befuddled mother.
The movie ends abruptly, which is too bad, because even after an hour and 40 minutes, an hour more on the aftermath of the true-life case would not have tried my patience at all.
It would be particularly fascinating to find out how Juliet Hulme, teen murderess, became the best-selling mystery novelist who writes under the pseudonym Anne Perry (a fact that was discovered after the movie was released). Sequel, anyone?