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No. 26: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

“We have decided how sad it is for others that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
~~Pauline Parker

The story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teens who killed Pauline’s mother with half a brick jammed in a stocking, is too strange not to be true. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Peter Jackson makes it stranger. He brings Borovnia, the elaborate fantasy realm created by unstable friends Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), to alarming life with castles and expressionless, life-size claymation-like creatures. That these two worlds will smash into each other is inevitable; what’s surprising is the way “Heavenly Creatures” makes the collision feel just as shocking as the day it happened.

Jackson’s first few shots are designed to provide a portrait of hyperconservative 1950s Christchurch, then thrust us into the worst of the Parker-Hulme murder. “Heavenly Creatures” opens with idyllic scenes of Christchurch: wildflower-covered hills, whitewashed fences, quaint steeple-topped churches. This is a place where supper’s waiting on the table at 5, where words like “murder” are unthinkable. Abruptly the camera cuts to Pauline and Juliet, their faces covered with blood, screaming. With no context for their distress, Jackson sets a tone of profound unease. As “Heavenly Creatures” continues, the unease gives way to sheer horror as Pauline and Juliet’s obsession with each other grows. The two meet at school: Juliet, bright, pretty and self-confident enough to correct her French teacher’s grammar, is a new student. Pauline, played with spooky glowering intensity by Lysnkey, couldn’t be more different from her classmate. Shy and self-conscious about the scar on her leg caused by bone disease, Pauline exists in her own make-believe world. That makes her immensely attractive to Juliet, who wishes life could be a romance novel. “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic,” she insists. Listen carefully to how Winslet pitches her voice on this line; she sounds bubbly, but that cheer is tinged with mania, just enough to clue us in this friendship won’t be a beautiful one.

At first, Pauline and Juliet seem like a harmless enough pair, two dreamy teen girls swooning over tenor Mario Lanza and prattling on about Orson Welles. Then they are separated when Juliet has an attack of tuberculosis, and the friendship turns to what looks like romantic obsession. Soon they are so tangled up in each other’s lives that Juliet’s parents (Diana Kent, Simon O’Connor) and Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Pierse) start to wonder if … if what? In 1954 Christchurch, the word “lesbian” has no meaning except to Pauline’s doctor, who views homosexuality as a disease to be cured. Everyone agrees separating Pauline and Juliet is best; Pauline blames her mother alone and sketches a plan for her murder. No one, it seems, can or wants to understand how combustible the girls’ bond has become. But one line in Pauline’s diary says it all: “The next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd … yet how pleasing.” This frenzy has reached a point of no return.

How could two normal girls commit such a crime? There’s no answer, and Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh don’t invent one. (It’s intriguing that Parker and Hulme, after serving five years in prison, went on to lead uneventful lives: Hulme found success writing crime novels under the name Anne Perry, and Parker changed her name and converted to Roman Catholicism.) His focus, Jackson has said, was to provide a humane look at what happened, and he does not demonize the killers; instead, he recreates their friendship and turns the fantasy world in Pauline’s journals into a mythical place using digital effects and actors in green latex suits. The result is striking (this is Peter Jackson) and menacing as the bottomless black eyes of the Borovnian creatures.

The visuals, however, are but part of the reason “Heavenly Creatures” gets under our skin. Lynskey and Winslet, both new to film acting in 1994, are astonishing finds. Winslet heaps on sunny smiles, but they are twitchy and preternaturally wide, like she’s one step away from completely losing control. With her eyes alone Lynskey projects menace beyond her 16 years. When she remarks “it’s a three-act story with a tragic ending,” there’s gravity in those words like you can’t imagine.

Screw the eggnog: Cheerless movies for the Season of Cheer

badsanta

Billy Bob Thornton isn't your average Saint Nick in the delightfully twisted "Bad Santa."

I know that Christmas is the time of good tidings and cheer, of wassailing and sleigh rides, of snowman building and eggnog, tree trimming and family togetherness and overall spectacularly warm-hearted merrymaking.

But so help me if I have to hear “Feliz Navidad” one more time I am going to have a meltdown of cataclysmic — no, make that Britney Spears — proportions. I will shave my own head, procure a few random tattoos and then do a press junket where I convince everyone I’m old and boring and, like, a TOTALLY fit guardian for two children.

Yes, you caught me — when it comes to the Season of Cheer, I am something of a grinch, a harbinger of bah humbug apathy. Perhaps I was born without the Christmas spirit, or maybe I had one once but I stopped feeding it, so it wandered away in search of sustenance.

(Don’t worry; I’m not a complete lost cause. A quick viewing of “Elf” or the claymation Rudolph/Abominable Snowman special whips me into a minor Xmas frenzy.)

So this year I figured I would run with this grinch-like spirit in the hopes that a few of you out there share my dilemma. Thus, I offer up a list of anti-Christmas movies — you know, the kind that leave you feeling sick, horribly depressed or dumbfounded and numb. If you’re in the mood to scare off any holiday merriment, play one of these at top volume:

* The Todd Solondz trilogy: “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” “Storytelling” — Nobody makes better soul-killing films than Solondz, and this is the Holy Trinity for his fans. “Dollhouse” offers a brutally honest and painful glimpse at adolescence; “Happiness” is an ensemble drama about everyday people trying (and failing miserably) to find joy; and “Storytelling” offers up two cringe-with-laughter vignettes, one involving something resembling a professor/student date rape and the other about a family who learns too late what happens when you mistreat the hired help. My advice? Don’t watch all three in rapid succession unless you have a hearty supply of uppers — or at least a few dozen SSRIs — within arm’s reach.

* “Bad Santa” — OK, OK, you caught me. I threw in a Christmas movie, but only because “Bad Santa” gets my lusty, wholehearted vote for its gleeful and unapologetic lack of anything resembling warmth or Christmas cheer. Billy Bob Thornton delivers a dementedly clever performance as Willie T. Soke, a grumbling, last-stage alcoholic safecracker who poses as Santa to get access to store safes and rob them. “Miracle on 34th Street”? Please. Give me a movie about a Santa who gives plastic reindeer a beatdown and spends his lunch breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing room any day.

* “The Pledge” — Somehow this bone-chilling, taut little thriller starring Jack Nicholson as a detective hunting a serial killer and Robin Wright Penn as a harried single mom slipped under everyone’s radar in 2001. No matter — those who saw it (including, of course, yours truly) never forgot the ominous tone and the make-your-skin-crawl final act. This film serves up the kind of resolution that’s twice as unnerving as it is comforting. Bonus: Benicio del Toro turns in a cameo that will haunt your dreams. Believe it.

* “Apartment Zero” — Here’s yet another first-rate pitch-black number very few people saw (to be fair, I found out about it through a fellow film buff). Set in the volatile political climate of 1980s Buenos Aires, this one stars Colin Firth as a nervous, antisocial theater owner who befriends a charismatic sociopath (Hart Bochner, who should have become wildly famous) who may be a ruthless hitman. The humor is so bracingly black it draws more nervous chuckles than laughter, and the final scene will freeze your blood. Prepare to lose some sleep.

* “House of Sand and Fog” — This quiet film plays out, scene for scene, like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps a grim retelling (or retooling) of what we consider the American Dream. Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley are note perfect as a recovering alcoholic who loses her house to a red-tape snafu and the determined immigrant who purchases it, free and clear, in an auction. The intersection of these two lives initiates pure chaos, sending both characters steamrolling toward an end so bleak it will have you reeling for weeks (trust me). Be careful with this one.

* “Mystic River” — As a director, Clint Eastwood has created near-flawless films that peek into the dark hearts of mankind. Apart from “Unforgiven,” it doesn’t get much darker or more disturbing than this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime thriller. The performances are astounding; in particular, watch Tim Robbins shrink himself inside and out to play Dave, a man whose demons are slowly and stealthily eating him alive. Sean Penn, too, is unforgettable as an ex-con hungry to avenge his teen-age daughter’s murder — and it’s that revenge that sets off a chain reaction of grim events that lead to soul-deadening conclusion.

* “Requiem for a Dream” — This adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s dismal novel takes the top spot in this list because, quite simply, I have never — and probably will never — see another film that presents such an unrelentingly bleak (but realistic) view of drug addiction. Observe the addicts in question: There’s Sara (Ellen Burstyn, who was ROBBED of the Oscar by Julia Roberts), an overweight retiree hooked on speedy diet pills who watches as her son, Harry (Jared Leto), hocks her possessions for smack money. His friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are smackheads, too, and before long every player in this drama realizes the particularly cruel paradox of addiction: When you can stop, you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t. Here’s a film guaranteed to leave you awestruck and, at the same time, completely, utterly numb.

*** HONORABLE MENTIONS ***

Thanks to some prodding by a reader (I won’t name names; you know who you are), I realized there was at least one movie I left off this list. Maybe that’s because I forgot it, but I suspect it might be because the movie was so wholly disturbing I’d blocked it from recent memory.

* “Mysterious Skin,” “Manic” — Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how far ye have come since “Third Rock from the Sun.” This former alien has blossomed into a first-rate dramatic actor, and these two films attest to that undeniable fact. In the first, he capably portrays a troubled teen who’d prefer to bury memories of a childhood trauma with RSEs (Random Sexual Encounters); in the second, JGL is downright frightening as a high school student with an anger management problem that lands him in the local psych ward. Don’t expect mindless happy endings; here are two indies that leave you with that sinking feeling (or is it nausea?) in your gut.

* “O” — Shakespeare buffs, please prepare yourself by putting away your quill pens; I warn you that you will not like what you are about to read. This powerful movie (shelved because of its controversial nature) gets my vote as the most creative and disturbing recreation of a Shakespearean play. Based loosely on “Othello,” this drama — set in a modern-day private Southern high school — does the Bard proud by digging deep into the issues that made his play so timeless: jealousy, greed, need for acceptance, trust, deception. The body count alone is unsettling, but it’s each character’s personal dissintegration (particularly Odin as played by Mekhi Phifer) that makes your head spin.

* “Heavenly Creatures” — Forget “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t even mention “King Kong.” Peter Jackson’s spooky project (based on the true story of two New Zealand teens involved in a brutal matricide) remains, in my mind, his definitive work. Thanks to Jackson’s free-wheeling directoral style (he employs creeptastic fantasy scenes) and outstanding acting by then-newcomer Kate Winslet and “Two and a Half Men’s” Melanie Linskey, this is one movie that digs its way into your subconscious and calls it home. If you don’t walk away profoundly disturbed, it’s too late to save you from the psychotic break that looms in your future.