Peter Jackson has now established himself as one of the most widely known directors out there by helming the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, an enterprise that cost over $300 million dollars and already produced a first film that was a critical and commerical success. Yet, there was a simpler time where the New Zeland-born director was creating small horror films ("Bad Taste" and "Braindead"), which gained cult notice, but did not exactly point to the director's future.
It was in 1994, when the director made "Heavenly Creatures", that people around the world really stood up and noticed a director with incredible potential and skill. Merging his eye for interesting, often surreal compositions with marvelous performances from newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, "Creatures" is a powerful and involving mystery. The film focuses on the real story of Pauline Rieper (Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Winslet) set in Christchurch, New Zeland from 1952 to 1954.
Both girls are outcasts in their own way, as one is quiet and one is outgoing, while both have suffered from various illnesses ("All the best people get diseases," says Juliet. "It's terribly romantic!"). The two become the best of friends, using their often remarkable imaginations to take themselves away from their dull surroundings into what they call "the fourth world", a fantasy landscape populated with bright colors and made-up creatures. However, when Juliet falls ill once more, the parents of both start to become suspicious of the friendship and force the two girls apart. As a result, they fall deeper into their madness, putting together a tragic plan that they believe will allow them to be together for the rest of their lives.
There are several elements that lift "Heavenly Creatures" considerably far above the realm of the genre. The performances from newcomers Lynskey (to be seen next week in "Sweet Home Alabama") and Winslet. Lynskey masterfully portrays a withdrawn soul who blooms only in the presence of her friend. Winslet, who does occasionally play the character in an awfully caffinated way, still offers a passionate and often heartbreaking performance. The film's production design and visuals in general are also worthy of much praise; not only is the film's cinematography energetic, creative and rich, but the fantasy worlds that the two girls find themselves in is definitely inspired work. The film's slow turns from romantic to fantasy to dark drama also are remarkably well-done. Problems with pace do not arise, as the performances and presentation hold the interest, while the plot moves forward with solid momentum.
I'm glad to see that Miramax has finally released "Heavenly Creatures" on DVD (although Peter Jackson's involvement in the "Lord of the Rings" series likely restricted him from being able to work on a Special Edition). Nonethless, I'd guess many "Rings" fans have not seen this haunting and exceptional early effort from the director, which the DVD presents in "uncut" form.
The DVD presentation offers the 109-minute uncut version of the film. While it's been a bit too long since my last viewing to pick out the differences, this is approximately 10 additional minutes, according to the Internet Movie Database.
VIDEO: "Heavenly Creatures" is presented by Miramax in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The presentation is not without its flaws, but I think most fans of the film will be very pleased with the effort that Miramax has done here. Sharpness and detail vary slightly throughout the show; while there are moments that have a slight softness creeping in, most of the film offers a crisp and well-defined image that makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.
Some minor faults are scattered throughout the presentation: edge enhancement appears in slight-to-mild amounts in several scenes, only occasionally turning bothersome. Print flaws are thankfully only at a minimum, but there are still a few little specks and scenes that have intentional, light grain.
The film's color palette is carefully crafted, varying from subdued, darker colors to brighter and more vivid tones. Both lighter and darker moments look terrific, as colors displayed no noticable faults. Although it's not without some problems, I still find found this to be a nice transfer, nonetheless.
SOUND: "Heavenly Creatures" is presented in Dolby 2.0 surround by Miramax. The soundtrack covers all the bases in terms of quality: dialogue is crisp and clear, while the score and sound effects are well-recorded. While most of this soundtrack is certainly dialogue-driven, with touches of score, there are also instances of creative sound effects that add to the tone of the film.
MENUS: Fairly basic, non-animated main & sub-menus, with images from the film serving as backgrounds.
EXTRAS: The film's theatrical trailer and "Sneak Peek" trailers for "Backflash", "Shipping News", "Pinero" and "Teaching Mrs. Tingle".
Final Thoughts: A truly chilling and dazzling early effort from director Peter Jackson, "Heavenly Creatures" offers two outstanding performances accompanied by phenomenal visuals, terrific writing and superb direction. Miramax's DVD doesn't offer much in the way of supplements, but does boast the uncut version of the film and respectable audio/video quality. Highly Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2