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SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVILISH : What’s a Little Motherly Murder Between Friends?

Peter Jackson, the 33-year-old New Zealand director, has been mostly known to the film festival circuits for his offbeat sci-fi and horror movies (“Bad Taste,” “Dead Alive”), which went on to achieve international cult status.

That reputation may change, however, with the release of his new film, “Heavenly Creatures,” a powerful dramatization of the 1954 Parker-Hulme case, in which two New Zealand teen-age girls murdered the mother of one of them. The film, which opened Wednesday, has already won the prestigious Venice Film Festival Silver Lion and Toronto Film Festival Metro Media Award.

The high-profile case, still called “New Zealand’s most famous crime,” has continued to fascinate the media--and public--for 40 years.

“But in all this time,” Jackson says in a recent visit to Los Angeles, “the story has never been told sympathetically.” During the trial of Pauline Parker, 15, and Juliet Hulme, 16 (played in the film by first-time teen-age actresses Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, respectively) for the murder of Parker’s mother, tabloids wrote mostly titillating accounts of the crime itself and of the peculiar, possibly lesbian, friendship between the girls.

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Jackson’s longtime collaborator Frances Walsh was the first to suggest he tackle the subject on film. “I immediately fell in love with this unusual tale,” Jackson says. “I became obsessed with it.”

From the start, Jackson decided to focus on the extraordinary friendship between the girls rather than the end result, a gory murder that sent them to prison. “Our intention was to make a film about an intense relationship,” Jackson says, “that went terribly wrong.”

Jackson and Walsh began reading newspaper accounts of the trial, but they quickly realized the lurid articles contained little useful information. “In the 1950s, Pauline and Juliet were branded as the ‘most evil people,’ ” Jackson says. “What they had done seemed without rational explanation--people assumed there was something wrong with their minds.

“The press labeled them the ‘lesbian schoolgirl killers.’ Criminal psychology was at its most primitive. The public believed it was a case of insanity, of homosexuality, mental illnesses you could recover from, with the right treatment.”

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To achieve a more compassionate perspective, they undertook a massive search for people who knew the girls. Their main sources were the court records and Parker’s diaries, in which she recorded thoughts about her intense friendship with Hulme. Based on these diaries, the girls emerged as two extremely intelligent and imaginative adolescents with a wicked, irreverent humor. The entire voice-over in the film is based on Parker’s writings.

Jackson sees the film as non-judgmental: “These two girls were innocent outcasts before they met, who became even more outcast once they forged a friendship. They evolved their own secret code, their own fantasy utopian milieu, an Arthurian kingdom.”

As for the lesbian overtones, Jackson feels it was “natural for girls of that age to take baths and sleep together,” citing Parker’s diaries, in which she wrote, “we tried to enact the way saints would make love.”

Up to the murder, Jackson’s film embraces the girls’ point of view “because we wanted the audience not just to observe but to participate.” In the last segment, however, the camera backs off and the film becomes more detached and stylized. “I can understand everything but their motivation for the murder, everything until the leap they made from the fantasy of killing to its reality.”

Both women were convicted and spent five years in separate prisons. “They were pardoned,” says Jackson, “as it was clear to the authorities they wouldn’t offend again.” Their release, however, was contingent on their never seeing each other again. They never did.

About three years ago, when a sensationalistic play, “Daughters of Heaven,” was produced in New Zealand, a reporter familiar with the case wrote a story for the Wellington Sunday News, describing Hulme’s whereabouts. Hulme--who had been living quietly in the Scottish Highlands as successful British mystery writer Anne Perry--finally broke her anonymity and gave an interview in the London Daily Telegraph, in which she talked about the murder for the first time.

Pauline Parker was kept on parole until 1965, when she left New Zealand after earning a degree in English. Her location and current identity remain unknown. Jackson never tried to contact the women: “We respect their privacy; we didn’t want to invade it.”

Film offers have been pouring in, but Jackson says that he has no desire to go Hollywood. Yet his next picture, “The Frighteners,” a comic ghost thriller starring Michael J. Fox, will be for Universal and produced by Robert Zemeckis. Jackson is holding out on at least one issue, however: It is being shot in New Zealand.

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