Heavenly Tweetures

Our current Movie of the Month, 2003’s sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare fits into a thematic pattern I’ve recently noticed in a lot of my personal media consumption: the story of two damned souls who are relatively harmless in isolation but absolute menaces when working in tandem. Films like Sheer Madness, Heathers, Thoroughbreds, and Love Me If You Dare (not to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, Wuthering Heights) establish a canon of stories about young people whose violent, unignorable attraction to each other at the expense of engaging with the world at large leads to deadly, widespread mayhem. Love Me If You Dare is only an outlier in this genre because of its general adherence to romcom tropes and its weakness for twee whimsy. Its story of two young children who bond over an escalating set of dares as they grow into increasingly dangerous adults starts relatively cute & romantic before gradually mutating into an off-the-rails thriller of sorts. Love Me If You Dare’s adherence to romcom tropes & twee whimsy may establish it as an outlier in its own violent-attraction subgenre, but I still don’t know that I’d call the it the most extreme specimen of its ilk. That honor still belongs to Peter Jackson’s 1994 true crime thriller Heavenly Creatures, a film that knows a thing or two about sinister romance & childlike whimsy.

One of the most obvious ways that Heavenly Creatures represents a fucked-up extreme as a tale of violent romance & childhood imagination is its status as a true story ripped from 1950s Australian headlines. In their big screen debuts, then-preteen actors Kate Winslet & Melanie Lynskey star as a pair of misfit schoolgirls who become maniacally obsessed with each other to the point of detaching from reality entirely. Their dual “unwholesome attachment” results in the murder of one of the girls’ mothers, a scandalous tabloid story that made the girls locally infamous for decades. Obviously personally obsessed with the material at hand, Jackson shoots the girls’ murderous attraction to each other with the same funhouse cinematic eye he afforded the over-the-top splatter comedies of his early career, except with a newfound pathos. Jackson’s camera work is as drunk on the characters’ violent chemistry as they are, adapting the same cartoonish aesthetic of his zombie comedies to a newfound, purposeful effect. I could never choose between Heavenly Creatures or Dead Alive as the best title in his catalog, then, as they’re equally, weirdly broad & childish considering the violence of their content. Heavenly Creatures is distinguished there in its immersion in the imagination of two real-life children whose dual fantasy ultimately resulted in a real-life body count. It’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly fucked up how well Jackson manages to put his audience in the headspace of these two extemely particular young women.

The parallels between Heavenly Creatures and Love Me If You Dare are unmistakable once you start looking for them. The two girls in Heavenly Creatures initially bond over their shared history of debilitating illness, whereas Love Me If You Dare also begins with a long-term terminal illness disrupting a family’s functionality. Both films detail children forming intense bonds across class lines, with working class parents initially embracing their children’s intense friendship with better-off classmates for the potential social mobility before the red flags become unignorable. Most substantially, the two childhood bonds established between them are built upon flights of fancy that go too far: in one, the game of escalating dares; in the other, the roleplaying game of the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia. Although it is based on real-life events, Heavenly Creatures is just as prone to reality-breaking whimsy as Love Me If You Dare, bringing to life the made-up fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that the girls’ dual imagination concocted in real life. The clay figures the girls use at playtime are frequently blown up to life-size fantasy figures as they sink further into their escapist imaginations to avoid the dull Hell of reality. While the doomed pranksters of Love Me If You Dare grow up into the real-world adults, the fantasy-prone murderers of Heavenly Creatures shy further away from it. What’s really fucked up about that dynamic is that the young children of Heavenly Creatures are much more honest & active in expressing their romantic, sexual, and violent attraction to each other than the gradually adult players of Love Me If You Dare, even if both pairs’ inevitable downfall is an inability to fully distinguish the border between fantasy & real-life consequence.

Considering its own clash of childlike imagination & deadly menace, it’s tempting to suppose that Heavenly Creatures might’ve taken on a more twee aesthetic if it were released a decade later than it was. Peter Jackson would have been working on the Lord of the Rings films around the time of Love Me If You Dare’s release, a series that is in no way twee or cutesy (or, in my opinion, nowhere near as good as Heavenly Creatures), but a different director handling that same material in the early aughts could’ve transformed it into a twee classic with just a few tonal tweaks. It’s not too difficult to imagine a Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Juenet playing around with the same eerie whimsy of the Barovnian clay kingdom in their own retelling of the story. I’d even argue that you get a decent taste of what a twee Heavenly Creatures might have been like in the early childhood stretch of Love Me If You Dare. The debut feature of the much less-accomplished Yann Samuell, Love Me If You Dare never had the chance to compare to the pure cinematic bliss of Heavenly Creatures. No matter what it may lack in craft, however, it’s still impressive how the film manages to match the maniacal energy & deadly stakes of Jackson’s superior work while still mimicking the basic tones & tropes of the early-aughts twee romcom: the most sinister of cinematic balancing acts.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinster twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Forgotten Silver (1995): Peter Jackson’s Silent Film Precursor to The Independent (2000)

Five years before our December Movie of the Month, 2000’s Jerry Stiller comedy The Independent, went straight to DVD a very similar mockumentary aired on New Zealand television: 1995’s Forgotten Silver. Although Forgotten Silver covers cinema’s early, silent era while The Independent covers its B-movie & drive-in time frame, the two mockumentaries are very similarly minded both in their reverence for the medium they’re spoofing and in their depictions of madmen auteur directors possessed by their passion for filmmaking & troubled by their failure to secure proper funding for their art. While The Independent is a brilliant, must-see comedy for schlock junkies & Roger Corman fanboys, Forgotten Silver covers the same territory for cinephiles & Criterion fetishists.

When it was first introduced to New Zealand audiences, Forgotten Silver was framed as a true-life documentary of “forgotten” (read: fictional) filmmaker Colin McKenzie, who supposedly operated during cinema’s birth at the turn of the century through the tail end of the silent era in the late 20s. Much like how The Independent‘s Morty Fineman accidentally pioneered cinema in his quest to make movies about “tits, ass, and bombs” Colin McKenzie was credited here for accidentally inventing the world’s first tracking shot, color film, feature length film, talkie, close-up, and candid camera comedy, among other firsts. Although this list of feats is beyond preposterous for an unknown filmmaker (and they all end in blunderous fates like smut charges & miscarriages) its deadpan delivery & adherence to a traditional documentary format make it somewhat understandable that some television audiences were initially duped by Forgotten Silver‘s validity as a document of a real-life auteur. It’s got a much more wry, Woody Allen’s Take the Money & Run style of mockumentary humor in contrast to The Independent‘s more over-the-top, Christopher Guest-esque approach to comedy.

It’s difficult to say for sure if Forgotten Silver provided any direct inspiration for The Independent, but there are some undeniable similarities in their DNA. While Forgotten Silver is concerned with restoration of McKenzie’s entire catalog, The Independent follows the discovery & restoration of Fineman’s “lost” anti-herpes PSA The Simplex Complex. Also like The Independent, Forgotten Silver is mostly concerned with the completion of a single feature film, this time profiling the production of Salome, a multi-year production of a Biblical epic featuring 15,000 extras, a city-sized hand-built set, and endless funding issues that similarly plagued Fineman’s Ms. Kevorkian. The film also establishes its legitimacy as a documentary by enlisting several big names in art cinema – producer Harvey Weinstein, critic Leonard Maltin, and actor Sam Neill among them – to provide interview fodder. Peter Jackson, the film’s co-director/creator alongside documentarian Costa Botes, get the most screentime of all, framing the story of how McKenzie’s films were found & restored and what significance they have to the history of cinema at large in his talking head interviews.

The differences between Forgotten Silver & The Independent are just as apparent. Because Colin McKenzie was (fictionally-speaking) long dead before Peter Jackson brought his work to light, Jackson serves as the central voice in Forgotten Silver. Morty Fineman, on the other hand, is Jerry Stiller alive & at his loudest & most demanding, dominating The Independent‘s runtime. The films’ tones are also drastically different. The only time Forgotten Silver approaches The Independent‘s over-the-top ridiculousness is in its depictions of sub-Charlie Chaplin vaudeville routines involving cream pies that McKenzie filmed in order to financially support Salome. For the most part, though, the two films are remarkably simpatico. At heart, they both aim to resurrect long-dead cinema genres in loving spoof form. Forgotten Silver‘s approach is just more subdued & deadpan due to the nature of its turn-of-the-century subject matter. The Independent is a much flashier, more over-the-top comedy, which makes sense given its exploitation cinema homage. Both are great, must-see comedic gems for cinephiles in either camp.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, 2000’s The Independent, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this transcription of Morty Fineman’s fictional filmography, and last week’s recommendation that you also watch the documentary Corman’s World to get the full picture..

-Brandon Ledet