A Heavenly Trip Toward Hell

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Obsession, when it takes hold, is not a fragrance but a lethal gas. It envelops and consumes us; it is all the air we breathe. It should make for an ideal film subject. But moviemakers rarely know what to do with obsession. They make it trivial, cartoonish. A superfiend itches to blow up the planet -- big hairy deal. An id-monster like Freddy Krueger dices and slices kids as they sleep. Zzzzzz!

Those scenarios are timid next to the real thing: the power one person has over another -- the puppy love, say, that turns rabid as two souls merge in a toxic rapture. For most kids this is just a part of growing up; somehow they learn to cope with the glandular and emotional convulsions that accompany the transformation from child to teenager. Yet the threat of surrender is always there. The teenage girls in the wonderfully unsettling movie Heavenly Creatures create their own fantasy world out of youthful obsession, and then it spins out of their control. The result is murder.

You should know -- actually, for complete, suspenseful enjoyment of the film, you very much should not know, but the word is out, so we're obliged to tell you -- that Heavenly Creatures is based on a notorious murder case. In 1954 in Christchurch, New Zealand, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were convicted of bludgeoning Pauline's mother Honora to death. The girls were "detained at Her Majesty's pleasure" until 1959, when Juliet left New Zealand and Pauline went into hiding. It was recently revealed that Juliet became a best-selling mystery novelist who lives in Scotland and writes under the name Anne Perry. Perry claims to remember little of the murder; the hero of several of her novels is a detective, William Monk, who occasionally suffers from amnesia.

Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) are children of two different cultures. Juliet's father is an English canon, and the girl is blond, worldly, brash; she was hospitalized for lung disease, and has been brought to New Zealand for the climate. Pauline, whose father manages a fish store, is dark and broody; she has leg scars from the ravages of osteomyelitis. Juliet sees their wounds as badges of spiritual aristocracy: "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic."

Heavenly Creatures is frightfully romantic too, and romantically frightening. It ascends and plummets with the girls' mercurial moods. As they fall into a conspiracy of affection, the film lures the viewer into the girls' fantasy world, as elaborate as that created by the Bronte sisters: a kingdom called Borovnia, where the clay statues they have molded come to life as blue- blooded versions of their favorite "saints" (Mario Lanza and James Mason) and demons (Orson Welles, "the most hideous man alive"). But demons can also be sexy. When a fellow makes clumsy love to Pauline, she pays him no heed and imagines herself ravaged by her fantasy Welles.

Director Peter Jackson, whose three earlier features (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive) make clever use of puppetry and guignol splatter effects, here is like a physician who assumes a patient's fever in order to understand her illness. He visualizes the landscape of Pauline's and Juliet's minds as a fetid garden, where fairytale plots of courtly love and castle intrigue blot out their edgy lives at home and school. The girls' vision of Borovnia utterly mesmerizes them. Anyone who would break the spell -- like Pauline's sweet, anxious mum -- must be a witch. Must be sentenced to death.

Screenwriter Frances Walsh based the script she wrote with Jackson on interviews with those who knew the girls and on the bits of Pauline's diary that were submitted in court. As quoted in Heavenly Creatures, the daybook is a monologue of a fertile mind racing gaily toward madness. At first Pauline takes some blinkered notice of the outside world: "We have decided how sad it is for other people that they cannot appreciate our genius." Later, after the girls make love to their saints (and each other), she writes, "We have learned the peace of the thing called bliss, the joy of the thing called sin." And the morning of the murder, she notes, "I felt very excited and night-before-Christmasy last night."

The film's triumph is to communicate this creepy excitement with urgency and great cinematic brio, while neither condescending to the girls nor apologizing for their sin. The film's serendipitous stroke was to find Winslet and, especially, Lynskey, a first-time actress. They are perfect, fearless in embodying teenage hysteria. They declaim their lines with an intensity that approaches ecstasy, as if reading aloud from Wuthering Heights. The giggles that punctuate the girls' early friendship are not beneath Winslet and Lynskey. The screams that end the film are not beyond them.

In her diary Pauline wrote this verse: "It is indeed a miracle, one must feel,/ That two such heavenly creatures are real." In Heavenly Creatures the sad creatures whom Pauline and Juliet must have been in real life are alchemized into figures of horror and beauty. They become the stuff of thrilling popular art.