This brilliant but criminally neglected horror-fantasy is long
overdue for a rediscovery. In an increasingly rare development, the film
spins a gripping, consistently surprising narrative, and, even rarer,
does so with a modicum of originality.
PAPERHOUSE, a modestly budgeted British production from
1988, was adapted from the young adult novel MARIANNE DREAMS by
Catherine Storr. The film was the well-received (by the lucky few who
got a chance to see it) feature debut of director Bernard Rose, and in
many ways set the tone for what was to come from this staunchly
idiosyncratic filmmaker, who’s best known for the successful Clive
Barker adaptation CANDYMAN.
PAPERHOUSE also foreshadowed the distribution problems
many of Rose’s subsequent films would undergo in its truncated
theatrical release by the short-lived Vestron Films. Later Rose projects
include the true crime drama CHICAGO JOE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1990), which
was barely released, ANNA KARENINA (1997), which was recut by its
distributors, and the acclaimed IVANSXTC (2000), which like PAPERHOUSE
was given extremely limited theatrical and home video distribution.
11-year-old Anna is coming down with something. She
suffers from fainting spells during which she dreams of a foreboding
house situated in the midst of an oddly deserted plain.
Anna comes to realize that the strange abode of her
dreams is directly inspired by a drawing she made earlier. She makes
some additions to the drawing, most notably a glum-faced boy in one of
the house’s upper windows. Lo and behold, the next time Anna approaches
the house in her dreams she finds a boy staring out that very window. He
can’t move, though, as he’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Turns out the boy, named Mark, is real. He’s currently
interred in a hospital located near the apartment where Anna lives with
her aloof photographer mother and largely absent father. Anna decides
it’s up to her to save the ailing Mark in her dreams, which for some
reason Mark shares. Anna makes a mistake, though, in introducing her
father into the dream world, as her subconscious renders him as a dark,
eyeless brute who only makes Mark’s problems worse.
Mark it seems is going to die, and Anna has no way of
helping him. Nor is she too easy on herself, as the more time she spends
in her dream world, the more her physical body suffers, slipping into
fever and delirium to the point where she no longer has to dream in
order to contact Mark in the forbidding house!
Although his filmography is wildly uneven, Bernard Rose
is an uncommonly gifted moviemaker. That’s fully evident in PAPERHOUSE,
which has a smooth, confident flow and uniformly solid performances. The
American Glenne Headly, speaking with a convincing British accent, is
quite good as the lead character’s mother, and Charlotte Burke extremely
winning as the winsome Anna. The latter is not the type of wide-eyed
innocent favored by Hollywood, but a conflicted young woman who’s often
bratty and self-centered--in other words, a girl who could have been
snatched directly out of the real world.
Rose also demonstrates evident skill in his
presentation of Anna’s dream world, done with an unshowy surrealism and
a subtly unnerving aura of creeping menace. The film is mercifully free
of gratuitous gore or cheap scares, and concludes with an exhilarating
epic flourish that remains virtually unique in modern genre cinema.
What ultimately distinguishes PAPERHOUSE, however, is
its narrative prowess. As arrestingly odd as it is, it’s the
old-fashioned storytelling that seduces viewers, and which lingers long
after the film is over. The tale has the elemental power of a campfire
tale, and contains all the virtues of such an account, being scary,
suspenseful and consistently unpredictable.
Director: Bernard Rose
Producer: Tim Bevan, Sarah Radclyffe
Screenplay: Matthew Jacobs
(Based on a novel by Catherine Storr)
Cinematography: Mike Southon
Editing: Dan Rae
Cast: Glenne Headly, Charlotte Burke, Ben Cross, Elliott Spiers, Jane
Bertish, Samantha Cahill, Sarah Newblood, Gary Bleasdale, Gemma Jones,
Steve O’Donnell, Karen Gledhill, Barbara Keogh