"It's sort of like heaven, only better because there aren't any Christians. It's an absolute paradise of music, art and pure enjoyment," rhapsodizes imaginative teenager Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) regarding The Fourth World, a vivid fantasy realm of her invention she hopes to visit with her close friend, Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey). Juliet, the privileged daughter of a college professor and a psychologist, and Pauline, the working-class daughter of a retail manager and a rooming-house matron, come from quite different sides of cozy Christchurch, New Zealand, in the early 1950s. The two, who meet at age 14 and bond instantly over common childhood illnesses that keep them from participating in physical-education classes, spend their days rushing through school to get to elaborate arts-and-crafts projects and work on the lineage of the make-believe dynasty they are writing a novel about.
Their intense friendship is a private, impenetrable world governed by their affection for actor James Mason and singer Mario Lanza, as well as their mutual terror of Orson Welles. Their school holidays become elaborate events consisting of fantasy games, model making and novel writing. Their friendship eventually becomes something others cannot understand, particularly their teachers and concerned parents. Although the girls notice their falling grades at school and rising tensions at home, they simply attribute these to the fact others cannot see how superior they are. "Tis indeed a miracle one must feel that two such heavenly creatures are real. Why are men such fools? They will not realize the wisdom hidden behind (our) strange eyes, and these wonderful people are you and I," glows Pauline in of one her many passionate journal entries.
In mid-1953, the Hulme and Rieper parents discuss their growing concern over the decidedly "unwholesome attachment" the girls have developed. When the parents try to intervene, the girls only become more desperate in their attempts to be together. In spite of their parent's efforts, the girls remain close and begin to visit The Fourth World together in shared delusional fantasies. Things become grave when Juliet's lingering illness and her parent's looming divorce require her to move from New Zealand. The girls quickly devise a desperate, violent plan to keep them from being separated. Once the plan is carried out, the 15-year-old girls are charged with murder.
Before filmmaker Peter Jackson became internationally recognized as the director of the Lord of the Rings (2001-3) trilogy, he was the creator of some of New Zealand's more outlandish horror/comedy fare, such as the clever, winning, blood-soaked circus Dead Alive (1992). Heavenly Creatures was his first attempt at something a bit different. Using the real life case that had rocked his hometown before he was born proved to be just the right material. Writing the screenplay with his wife, Fran Walsh, Jackson worked closely with the real Pauline's diaries and spoke to dozens of people who knew the girls and the locations at which the incidents actually occurred. Wanting the film to have a sense of realism to mix with lush representations of the girls' elaborate fantasy world, Jackson turned to cinematographer Alun Bollinger (End of the Golden Weather) to set the right tone for the visuals of the picture. Bollinger worked closely with Jackson, committed to getting as much of the real girls' actual locations on film to make it as authentic as possible. Choosing the anamorphic widescreen format also gave the cinematographer room to make the film breathe in its more fantastic sequences. Bollinger and Jackson re-teamed for Forgotten Silver (1995) and The Frighteners (1996). Bollinger also served as second-unit director of photography for The Lord of the Rings.
Lionsgate Home Entertainment recently released Heavenly Creatures on Blu-ray. Like the earlier standard-def DVD, the film is presented in its restored, original, 108-minute version. The original US VHS and Laserdisc releases contained the 99-minute, trimmed version released theatrically here by Miramax in 1994. The high-definition debut features a uniformly pleasing image transfer that is extremely faithful to Bollinger's efforts. Colors are strikingly deep and rich; contrast is strong throughout, with considerable vibrancy in black levels. In direct comparison to the earlier, standard-definition DVD, the image is a sharper, much more nuanced presentation which gives new breath to shadows and incidental lighting all but lost on the earlier version. Although not as busy and defined as the most up to date surround mixes available, the 2.0 audio track offers the solid presence of a very creative mix.
With the theatrical trailer as the lone offering, the lack of supplemental materials is the only disappointing element of this crisp, new Blu-ray package. In spite of that unfortunate oversight, Heavenly Creatures remains a dizzying, absorbing and shocking take on a still haunting, real-life, murder. With excellent performances from the two then unknown leads and the deft, finely tuned screen direction, this unique and disturbing film bursts onto high definition with its “not-to-be-missed,” ferocious, storytelling power fully intact and ready to attract new audiences.