Shane R. Burridge
* * * (of 4) Insightful fantasy drama of girl on the verge of puberty who has vivid dreams that both reflect her own life and seem to be affecting the life of a boy, she has never met -- while awake. Tense, even frightening, psychologically valid and well-acted .... but not to every taste.
* * * * (of 4) PAPERHOUSE is a film in which every image has ben distilled to the point of almost frightening simplicity. It's like a Bergman film, in which the clarity is almost overwhelming, and we realize how muddled and cluttered most movies are. This one has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream -- which is what it is.
The movie takes place during the illness of Anna (Charlotte Burke), an eleven-year-old with a mysterious fever. One day in class, Anna draws a lonely house on a windswept cliff and puts a sad-faced little boy in the window. She is reprimanded by the teachers, runs away from the school, falls in a culvert, and is knoced unconscious.
And then she dreams of a "real" landscape just like the one in her drawing, with the very same house, and with a sad boy's face in an upper window. She asks him to come outside. He cannot, because his legs will not move, and because she has not drawn any stairs in the house.
Found by a search party, Anna is returned home, where her behaviour is explained by the fever she has developed. The film alternates between Anna's sickroom and her dream landscape, and very few other characters are allowed into her confined world. Among them, however, are her mother (Glenne Headly) and her doctor (Gemma Jones), and there are flashbacks to her absent father (Ben Cross), who is the distant and ambiguous father figure of so many frightening children's stories.
The film develops a simple rhythm. Anna draws, dreams, and then revises her drawings. She sketches in a staircase for the young boy, whose name is Marc, and fills his room with toys. She adds a fruit tree and flowers to the garden. And then one day she discovers, to her astonishment, that her doctor has another patient -- a boy named Marc, who faces paralysis, and about whom she is very concerned.
PAPERHOUSE wisely never attempts to provide any kind of rational explanation for its story, although we might care to guess that the doctor is sort of a psychic conduit allowing Anna and Marc to enter each other's dreams. Anna rebels briefly against the notion that she is someone playing God for Marc, but then accepts the responsibility of her drawings and her dreams.
PAPERHOUSE is not in any sense simply a children's movie, even though its subject may seem to point it in that direction. It is a thoughtfully written, meticulously directed fantasy in which the actors play their roles with great seriousness. Watching it, I was engrossed in the development of the story, and found myself accepting the film's logic on its own terms.
The movie's director is Bernard Rose, a young Briton who had some success with music videos before this first feature. He carries some of the visual inventiveness of the best music videos over into his images here, paring them down until only the essential elements are present, making them so spare that, like the figure of Death in Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL, they seem too concrete to be fantasies.
I will not discuss the end of the movie, except to say that is surprised and pleased me. I don't know what I expected -- some kind of conventional plot resolution, I suppose -- but PAPERHOUSE ends instead with a bittersweet surprise that is unexpected and almost spiritual. This is not a movie to be measured and weighed and plumbed, but to be surrendered to.
PAPERHOUSE is probably one of those movies you've never heard of, which is a
shame because it's a gem. The film was released in 1989 to a handful of rave reviews,
but it failed to find an audience and quickly disappeared from the theaters. It is now
available on videocassette. I rented it expecting a solid little thriller; I did not expect to
be swept away--to be deeply moved, disturbed, and frightened. PAPERHOUSE was,
without question, one of 1989's most striking and haunting films. I'm kicking myself for
having missed the movie in the theater where it would have had even greater visual and
The movie (based on the novel MARIANNE DREAMS by Catherine Storr) revolves
around Anna, a precocious 11-year old played by Charlotte Burke. Anna is a bratty
troublemaker, miserable to everyone around her. She gives her teacher hell, she lies,
and she is crabby to her mother (Glenne Headly). Then again, Anna has good reason to
be bitter: she doesn't get enough attention from her working mother and her father is
never around because his job keeps him away from home.
PAPERHOUSE begins on Anna's eleventh birthday, and it's not a good one. First she
gets detention at school, and then she comes down with a glandular illness and starts
running a fever and having fainting spells. Happy birthday! Anna's doctor orders her to
stay in bed for at least a week, a fate worth than death for a hyperactive
eleven-year-old. Anna fills the time by drawing pictures. In particular, she creates a
drawing of a house in a field with a boy looking out the second story window. Then, a
strange thing happens: every time Anna sleeps or faints, she has vivid dreams of the
house and boy in her drawing. Anna soon discovers that any change she makes to the
drawing creates a corresponding change in her dream world.
In her dreams, Anna befriends Marc, the boy in the window, who turns out to be
paralyzed from the waist down. The movie really plunges into the twilight zone when
Anna discovers that her doctor has a patient named Marc who suffers from cerebral
palsy; he is paralyzed from the waist down! In short, Anna knows Marc from her dreams
despite having never met him in her waking life. The film is an eerie love story between
a boy and a girl who know each other only in their dreams.
PAPERHOUSE is much more sophisticated and provocative than any of the
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films. Director Bernard Rose and screenwriter
Matthew Jacobs realize that the most frightening horror lies not in special effects but in
the subconscious mind. PAPERHOUSE dives into Anna's psyche, exploring, among
other things, her resentment toward her father and her budding sexuality. But at the
same time, the character of Marc (Elliott Spiers) gives the film a supernatural twist.
Marc, like Anna, exists in both the dream world and the real world, which suggests that
there is some sort of weird psychic connection between the two, even though they have
never met. The filmmakers wisely leave the fantastical elements of the movie
unexplained. PAPERHOUSE walks a delicate line between psychological drama and
supernatural horror. The ending, which easily could have ruined the movie, is strangely
satisfying: on one hand, it answers all of our questions--on the other hand, it answers
none of them.
Three key ingredients make the movie effective. First and foremost, there is Burke's
extraordinary performance as Anna. Although Spiers (as Marc) and Headly (as Anna's
mother) are outstanding, PAPERHOUSE is really Burke's show. Her acting is invisible,
or seamless. That is, we are never conscious of a performance; all we see is a fully
realized character. Second, there is the stunning production design which brings Anna's
dream world to life. The dream house is dark, dank, and depressing. A sense of dread
lurks in the air, and it makes you want to flee. Third, there is the flawless direction by
Rose, whose experience as a music video director evidently prepared him well for the
visual challenge of making PAPERHOUSE, his directorial debut.
PAPERHOUSE is hard to shake once it catches you in its grip. It is a truly imaginative
creation, and it just may be the scariest film since THE LADY IN WHITE, which is
another overlooked treasure also available on home video.
PAPERHOUSE opens on the 11th birthday of Burke, whose
relationship with her mother (Headly) is strained and whose
father (Cross) is away on business, as he often is. At school,
Burke passes out and, dreaming, finds herself in the middle of
large grassy field that leads to a house like one that she has
drawn in her notebook. When Burke is revived, Headly arrives
to take her to the doctor, but Burke claims that she faked the
fainting spell and her mother makes her go back to school.
Burke's vivid dreaming continues, however, with a young boy
(Spiers) playing a key role in them, and Burke soon recognizes
a relationship between her notebook drawings and her dreams.
With PAPERHOUSE, producers Tim Bevan and Sarah
Radclyffe, the founders of Working Title Productions (MY
BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE; PERSONAL SERVICES; SAMMY
AND ROSIE GET LAID), and director Bernard Rose have
arrived at an extremely inventive premise for what is essentially
a horror film. Unfortunately, their execution is not the equal of
their conceptual inventiveness. Eschewing standard gore and
violence, opting for less sensational situations, and refusing to
round up the usual suspects, they have explored the troubled
subconscious of a young girl through a horror film approach.
The film offers plenty of tension in the early going, but after the
initial shock of the approach wears off, it becomes less
frightening. Although Charlotte Burke--chosen from 1,500
would-be Annas and making her acting debut--is convincingly
innocent and confused, the other actors contribute less to the
proceedings. Glenne Headly (MAKING MR. RIGHT; DIRTY
ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS) is hampered by a post-filming
decision to make her erstwhile American character English and
to have her loop her character's dialogue in two days. Still, she
is far more successful than Ben Cross (CHARIOTS OF FIRE),
who appears to be sleepwalking even when he's not. In the
final analysis, the makers of PAPERHOUSE deserve a great
deal of credit for the risks they took, but the idea of the film is
more interesting than the film itself.
Shane R. Burridge
Catherine Storr's cult children's novel MARIANNE DREAMS had already been made
into a British television serial, ESCAPE INTO NIGHT, fifteen years before this film
version appeared. While the television adaptation followed the plot and ideas of the
story faithfully, Matthew Jacobs' new screenplay takes liberties which fans of the novel
may not enjoy. The premise is basically the same: A young girl (named Anne in the film)
falls sick and is confined to bed for several weeks. She begins to have dreams about
drawings she has made in a sketchbook and, upon discovering that a boy (Elliot
Spiers) in her dreams actually exists in the outside world, becomes convinced that the
control over her dreams is linked with the direction of real events.
Rather than the naive child of the novel, Anne's character is a rebellious sub-teen whose
fantasy dreamworld has now been redefined as Freudian subconscious. It's a difficult
role for audiences to sympathize with, but Charlotte Burke plays the part convincingly. In
fact it is less her growing relationship with Marc (the boy) than her ambivalent feelings
toward her absent father that determines the direction of the story. These feelings
cause her to (unconsciously?) recreate him as the agent of her sexual awakening - he
becomes literally the man of her dreams. The climax of the story, in which her father
drags her from the paperhouse employs imagery of a vaginal (fiery fissures opening in
the ground around them) and phallic (the lighthouse waiting for her in the distance)
nature, but is more `climax' than conclusion. The film seems to end three or four times
before Anne finally stands before the lighthouse - in the real world, this time - at the
edge of a cliff (she is at the brink of womanhood) with her arms open, inviting what may
come. This subtext makes for an interesting examination of the emotional confusion
associated with the onset of puberty, but in doing so loses the children's audience that
might have otherwise been attracted to the story. Neither, however, does the film seem
intended specifically for adults. The real appeal, as in the book, comes from watching
Anne's drawings materialize three-dimensionally in her dreams, and Bernard Rose
handles the transitory sequences well, imbuing the dream (later nightmare) sequences
with their own plausible reality.
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