Paperhouse is one of those subtle, haunting works of beauty that sometimes slip under our collective cultural radar. It’s a wonderful movie, to be sure, a quiet gem from 1988 that few have seen or heard of (it was released in only a handful of theaters and grossed a whopping $214,278 in the US). It’s filled with fascinating little quirks and ideas that come together to make it completely engrossing. Added to that is the fact that it’s one of the rare pictures that handles the roles of children realistically and engrossingly. I’ve always had mixed feelings about films involving children — in truth, good child actors are rarely easy to find, and there’s a tendency on the part of filmmakers to telegraph the plots and diminish their characters. These faults can become even more glaring in modern fairy tales, where sometimes a film will be dumbed down in an effort to make it more accessible. Fortunately, such was not the case here.
This particular fairy tale takes place in 1980’s England, where a precocious, somewhat bratty young girl named Anna is our heroine. Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) lives a relatively mundane life with her mother, Kate (Glenne Headly) in their drab London flat (her father, we eventually learn, is rarely home due to his work). She goes to private school where she feuds with some girls and befriends others, but her existence appears otherwise unremarkable. Anna, however, is not well — she has a tendency to faint, to black out sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours. Finally, her mother discovers this and Anna, febrile and frightened, is forced to stay home and rest in bed until her doctor, Sarah Nichols (Gemma Jones) can figure out what’s wrong and set her free. Anna also has a secret — when she falls asleep/passes out, she wakes up in another place — a place that mirrors the drawings she scratches out in her sketchbook in the waking world. Among the drawings that come to life are the titular house, and its sole resident, a sad, lonely boy named Marc (Elliott Spiers) who may or may not actually be one of Dr. Nichols’ other patients.
Here we encounter the fundamental oddity regarding the worlds of Paperhouse — what Anna creates, is perfectly reflected in her dreamworld, for better or for worse. She soon discovers that the ramifications of that power can affect people and things in ways she did not expect or understand. Initially, she can’t get into the house because it has no doorknob, and Marc, who is trapped on the second floor where she drew him, cannot let her in because she failed to draw any stairs. Similarly, Marc cannot walk… because she didn’t draw legs. As the film progresses, Anna tries to learn how to master this world she seems to have created, but at the same time, she learns that it appears to be inextricably linked to the real world. When she learns about Dr. Nichol’s other patient, she can’t help but draw the conclusion that he’s either the same boy, or somehow connected to him. When Marc gets sick in the dream house, Dr. Nichols’ patient (who real-world Anna hasn’t actually met) takes a turn for the worse.
If this sounds confusing, it really isn’t. However, Paperhouse is a difficult movie to summarize without either spoiling the plot or over-explaining, which is probably what director Bernard Rose (Candyman) was shooting for. Suffice it to say that it’s a curious film, one that is frequently overlooked by the casual viewer. It has moments of nerve-wracking tension, particularly when Anna, in a fit of childish temper, accidentally creates a monster that almost destroys her world. Yet it’s not a horror movie by any means. It explores the complex dynamic between a child and her parents — one an estranged father (Ben Cross) who is rarely home, the other an overwhelmed mother trying to deal with her child’s illness (not to mention her increasingly alarming and seemingly bizarre mood swings). Yet it’s not a family drama either. It’s a stark, unsettling amalgamation of ideas and concepts thrown together almost haphazardly, creating a sometimes jolting, but always interesting picture..
The acting is convincing, but inconsistent. Glenne Headly, who almost stole the show in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is somewhat bland here. Ben Cross is in the film so briefly that his performance is barely notable. Truly, the weight of the picture rests on the slender shoulders of Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers — they do their best, but at times it still smacks of low-budget theatrics. However, taken in the context of that era of filmmaking, (I sometimes feel that in general, directors asked less of child actors then they do now) their performances are admirable. Burke manages to effectively capture the persona of a bright, easily bored child who doesn’t understand the potential repercussions of her actions. As a result, one of the slowly evolving themes is her gradually accepting responsibility for the her actions and realizing the dangers inherent in the world of the Paperhouse. Spiers is easily the more engaging of the two kids, however. His character is designed, quite literally, to be forlorn — he was drawn with a frown on his colored-pencil face and as a result is cursed with eternal sadness. One of the challenges in playing a character designed around nothing more than a rough sketch of a specific emotion is to somehow create a fully-formed personality. The inherent risk is that the filmmakers and actors might end up that emotion define, and thereby diminish, the character. Spiers managed to harness that emotion and instead create a real boy out of the what is essentially a rough-drawn idea of one.
The sets and production present another fine piece of this little puzzle. For the most part, the real world is drab and forgettable, a boring gray cityscape that reflects Anna’s everyday doldrums. Anna’s dreams, however, are a fascinating blend of the fantastical and the foreboding. The house itself is rickety, built to look like a child’s drawing — full of odd angles and crooked lines, it’s part gingerbread house and part carnival fun house. It sits in a field of gold, with a sky that changes with the mood of the drawings themselves. Everything within this world is designed to reflect the mindset of a child’s emotions — sometimes angry and red, sometimes gloriously happy and colorful. Despite being filmed on a meager budget, it works well enough that one can easily see why Anna becomes more and more absorbed by her new world. When things go wrong, however, and Anna uses her almost God-like powers in a fit of seemingly trifling temper, the world changes completely, becoming a fearsome inferno that really is the stuff of children’s nightmares. Ultimately, this world hinges on her imagination, and as such does an excellent job of showing the sometimes dark places that a child’s imagination can go to.
Strangely enough, what makes Paperhouse unique and interesting also almost leads to its undoing. As I sat watching it for the first time in 20 years, I felt myself trying to puzzle out what was so alluring about it. For all of its themes of loss, responsibility, childhood fears and loves, the production is sometimes so stark and grim that it seems at odds with its own story. Yet had the film been made any happier, it would have ultimately felt unfulfilling. Its strength lies in those darker moments — it helps us recognize what we felt like as children, how things that adults take as minor or irrelevant can seem monumentally important to us — whether those things are real, or imagined. The final act is where the film starts to teeter a bit, as if the filmmakers were unsure which world they wanted Anna to wake up in. Taken as a whole, however, the ending successfully bridges her two worlds, while still allowing the viewer to use a bit of their own imagination.
Paperhouse always reminds me of other, more thoughtful fairy tales — Pan’s Labyrinth inevitably comes to mind. It doesn’t have the darkness or the sheer weirdness of that movie; instead it’s more about how the world of Anna’s dreams begins to bleed into her real world, until the two become inextricably, and in some ways tragically, linked. Alas, reviewing Paperhouse is a bit unfair to you folks. Unfortunately, it’s not actually available on DVD outside of the UK and possibly Canada. So while my neighbors to the north and those of you across the pond have easier access to it, Americans will have to find an alternative means of tracking it down (like I did). However, my hope is that now you’ll be prepared for its eventual release, and give it the attention it deserves but never received in its first life.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.
Paperhouse / TK
Underappreciated Gems | August 7, 2008 | Comments ()