Having flirted with cult favor for some time via inventively witty sci-fi and splatter excursions like "Bad Taste" and "Braindead," New Zealander Peter Jackson positions himself to be catapulted far beyond that with his startling fourth feature, "Heavenly Creatures."

Having flirted with cult favor for some time via inventively witty sci-fi and splatter excursions like “Bad Taste” and “Braindead,” New Zealander Peter Jackson positions himself to be catapulted far beyond that with his startling fourth feature, “Heavenly Creatures.” An exhilarating retelling of a 1950s tabloid murder, it combines original vision, a drop-dead command of the medium and a successful marriage between a dazzling, kinetic techno-show and a complex, credible portrait of the out-of-control relationship between the crime’s two schoolgirl perpetrators. The sum total should prompt celestial B.O. in exclusive-release situations pitched at the young hipster bracket, with breakthrough potential hinging on stellar reviews.

The film stands to cleave auds into love-it and leave-it camps, and will no doubt encounter opposition for its flashy bag of tricks, which some may feel crowds out psychological depth. But what’s rejected in some circles as being hammered by showiness and style will be embraced in others as an adrenalin-pumping rush of inexhaustible visual creativity.

Opening with the panicked aftermath of the killing, Jackson makes an attention-grabbing leap from a fusty Brit newsreel of sedate downtown Christchurch, replete with cheery commentary, to a frenetic Sam Raimiesque tracking sequence in which the blood-spattered teenage girls emerge hysterical from a secluded wood.

He then backtracks to reveal the somewhat morose and short-on-self-confidence Pauline (Melanie Lynsky) being snapped out of her shell by the arrival at school of imperious English girl Juliet (Kate Winslet), who briskly provides her with a role model by mercilessly correcting the French teacher’s grammar just minutes after entering the class.

Voiceovers of entries from the real Pauline’s diaries link the story.

The friendship quickly spirals to passionate interdependence, tracking the pair’s hyperactive pursuit of pleasure with manic, often menacing vigor, and sweeping the audience along to the rollicking sound of tunes sung by the girls’ favorite tenor, Mario Lanza.

They soon begin seeing themselves as intellectually superior to everyone around them, creating an Arthurian fantasyland which is home to two lovers and their remorseless, mass-murdering son.

Jackson slips into the realm of their imagination in a gorgeous sequence that morphs rolling countryside into sculpted gardens, with frolicking unicorns and giant butterflies swooping overhead. Subsequent segs take them to a castle (in the kingdom they call Borovnia).

The boundaries of their fantasies begin intruding on real life, amusingly so in a classroom scene in which a monarchy-mad teacher is shocked by Juliet’s account of a debauched Borovnia in place of the required essay on the royal family.

Their idyll hits an obstacle when Juliet is hospitalized for tuberculosis, the enforced separation making them more hostile to outsiders. A priest pushing Jesus on Juliet is dragged off and beheaded by an imaginary Borovnian. Later, another fantasy figure swiftly disembowels a psychiatrist.

Both girls become more distanced from their families. Pauline resents her hokey folks’ unworldliness, and Juliet’s disdainful, well-heeled parents are too preoccupied with each other to pay attention to her. When their marital split threatens to definitively separate the girls, a lethal plan is hatched.

The real strength of the characterization by scripters Jackson and Frances Walsh, and the two instinctive young thesps, is that despite their deadly purposefulness, Juliet and Pauline are never turned into monsters. Played with infinite sympathy, they give the impression of being drawn into a vortex in which the terms of survival dictate the harshest course of action.

Their bond falls into unclassifiable territory, being neither an innocent, misconstrued friendship, nor an acknowledged lesbian relationship. This ambiguity is deftly shown in a scene where they make love, imagining each other as their Borovnian idols.

Backup from the adult cast is strong, with Diana Kent and Clive Merrison as Juliet’s parents. Simon O’Connor is touching as Pauline’s father, at something of a loss to understand what’s happening to her, but valiantly keeping his chin up with a run of innocuously dumb comments.

As her quietly tragic mother, gradually revealed to be a less-than-perfect take on the ’50s suburban housewife, Sarah Peirse is terrific. Eccentricity amongst the school’s teaching body sometimes feels like it’s plied on a little thickly.

Alun Bollinger’s lensing has barely a stationary moment, invigorating the events with an impressive barrage of aggressive shooting techniques and effective filtering of color and light.

Widescreen format is impeccably filled with eye-catching compositions. Peter Dasent’s forceful music, James Selkirk’s editing and a large quota of effects ranging from sophistication to deliberate jokiness all contribute significantly.

Heavenly Creatures

New Zealand

Production

A Miramax Intl. presentation of a WingNut Films/Fontana Film Prods. co-production in association with the New Zealand Film Commission. Produced by Jim Booth. Executive producer, Hanno Huth. Co-producer, director, Peter Jackson. Screenplay, Jackson, Frances Walsh.

Crew

Camera (Eastman color, Cinemascope), Alun Bollinger; editor, James Selkirk; music, Peter Dasent; production design, Grant Major; art direction, Jill Cormack; costume design, Ngila Dickson; sound (Dolby) , Michael Hedges; prosthetic effects, Richard Taylor; digital effects, George Port; assistant director, Carolynne Cunningham; casting, John and Ros Hubbard (U.K.), Liz Mullane (New Zealand). Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 7, 1994. Running time: 99 min.

With

Pauline Parker - Melanie Lynsky
Juliet Hulme - Kate Winslet
Honora Parker - Sarah Peirse
Hilda Hulme - Diana Kent
Henry Hulme - Clive Merrison
Herbert Rieper - Simon O'Connor

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