How far can the strength of a story shine out from behind the murk of elements that would otherwise make you walk away? Paperhouse, directed by Bernard Rose in 1988, is borne out of a fever dream of its young protagonist and has the dialogue to match.
What Is Paperhouse About?
11-year-old Anna Madden is acting out. Angered by an absent father, she takes her frustrations out at school, on her mother, and through drawing.
Yet as she falls ill and passes out, she keeps entering a world seemingly created from her basic picture of a solitary house on a lonely hill, right down to the sad-faced boy she drew in the window.
Rose, who went on to direct the outstanding horror Candyman in 1992, brings an outstanding visual flair to Paperhouse. In 1988 there was no CGI to bolster the imagination (or lack thereof) of filmmakers.
Skewed camera angles enhance the low-budget yet impressive practical visual effects as Rose works his craft. The inherent wrongness of the house, through its impossible proportions to its sinister lighting, could teach a thing or two to modern directors who rely on green screen to do that leg work after the fact.
With walls that look like crumpled paper, and darkness that suggests the absence of anything in that space, Paperhouse exudes the mind of a child filling in the blanks. As Anna adds more details, these become wonky installations within the building, furthering the dream-like wonder that devolves as the film progresses.
Scenes set in the house have an alluring other-worldly wrongness about them; each element’s rough and warped proportions making for a nightmarish land.
The cast only consists of four to five characters: Anna, her mother (Glenne Headly), the boy, Marc (Elliott Spiers), and a doctor who cares for Anna as she slips into glandular fever (Gemma Jones). The emerging presence of Anna’s father looms large within the house, but back in the real world claustrophobic minimalism dominates, which is sadly for the best.
Charlotte Burke had never acted before her role of Anna, and never acted again after. There is promise there – her determined expression and ability to brood is compelling – but the already stilted dialogue lands flat in her inexperienced hands.
The pendulum of Anna’s relationship with her mother swings between antagonistic or emotionally dependant. This is closer to a real relationship than we normally get in movies, but Headly’s equally awkward dialogue and delivery means such moments are a chore to be endured.
To be fair to the American actor though, Headly redubbed all her dialogue in a clipped English accent to avoid being recast when Rose decided at the last minute to change her character in order to match up with all the other English actors.
Is Paperhouse Worth Watching?
The house itself is a masterpiece of unsettling design work. It is no coincidence that the house becomes ever more distorted as Anna’s fever worsens. Her reckless decisions – such as crumpling up the drawing, or scratching out the eyes of a figure meant to be her father – have horrifying repercussions once she re-enters that world.
The stakes are two-fold, even if one is later undercut. First, some doubt as to whether the house is a dream or some kind of magic is left dangling as Anna discovers that the boy, Marc, matches the description of another of her doctor’s patients.
Marc’s bemusement at his predicament fuels the dark fantasy feel of the movie; He simply believes he has always been there and, as he cannot walk, he sits and stares out of the window just as Anna drew him. Their burgeoning relationship is sweet as Anna softens whilst trying to improve the life she feels partly responsible for.
Less successful is the father figure. Anna’s crossings-out have horrific consequences and his threat provides genuine nightmarish horror as the movie wraps up its action.
Narratively though, this good work is sadly undercut. Outright hints about possible reasons why Anna’s father could cast such a dark shadow over her life are dropped during a protracted ending that fails to colour in the detail of earlier rough sketches.
The signs of Rose’s approach in the terrifying Candyman are all there in Paperhouse. The pre-CGI fantastical elements are a delight and the movie succeeds in creating an unpleasant world in which to get the hairs on the back of your neck to rise.
The lumpen acting, dialogue, and crawl of an ending prevent it from being a picture to work on further, but the images it conjures are worth pinning on the fridge to examine for a night.
Words by Mike Record
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