Paperhouse is a fascinating film that takes place primarily inside the mind of a young girl. This would automatically give it unusual status, but the film is a good deal better than merely unusual. It’s genuinely original.
The little girl in question is Anna (Charlotte Burke), who takes ill one day and is confined to bed. In her sketchpad, she has drawn a house on a grassy hill, surrounded by some strange standing stones. In her dreams that night, she seems to visit the site of this invented house.
In her waking state, Anna draws more details into the picture. Then, when she visits the house in her dreams, she finds these touches present and palpable. She adds the figure of a little boy (Elliott Spiers) inside the house, but she has drawn only the upper half of him behind a window, and when she arrives in the dream world, she finds he cannot walk.
Anna gradually becomes convinced that the little boy in her dreams has a counterpart in real life; he’s a sickly patient described to her by her doctor. Anna feels that by her drawings, she has the power to keep him alive or allow him to die.
It’s a weird premise, adapted by screenwriter Matthew Jacobs from Catherine Storrs’ novel Marianne Dreams. The little girl is clearly playing out her own anxieties and worries in her paper dream, including her testy relationship with her mother (Glenne Headly) and her ambivalent feelings about her father (Ben Cross), who is always away on business.
Eventually the movie erupts into some frightening, very disturbing imagery when Anna draws her father into her picture. Paperhouse taps into childhood fantasy and fears in ways that are reminiscent of the 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter, to say nothing of the unnerving, violent stories of the brothers Grimm.
The scenes of Anna’s family life are ordinary enough, but the dream sequences have an unreal, fairytale quality. The director, Bernard Rose, is making his first feature here, and his experience making music videos may account for his keen eye at capturing the surrealistic, highly stylized world of Anna’s dreams. It is one of the most vividly created worlds seen in a movie this year.
First published in The Herald, February 1989
I wish this review were better, because Paperhouse is a remarkable film – but at least I communicated that much. Rose had a hard time getting on track as a filmmaker; his next movie was the disastrous Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, then the classic horror picture Candyman, then the interesting Gary Oldman Beethoven film Immortal Beloved. The people who know this film apppreciate it – you know who you are.