Friday, May 8, 2009

Paperhouse (1988): or, Draw a Little Dream for Me

Kids love to draw. It's just one of the things they do. Take a child's boundless creativity and complete lack of self-consciousness and then slap a crayon in her hand, and BOOM--instant magic. Sure, it's not polished or particularly representative of the real world, but at the same time it's completely free of preconceived notions about art and real life in a way that's often refreshing and sometimes surprisingly insightful. You want a giraffe the size of a chihuahua? There he is. You want to show yourself enclosed in a heart that fills you top to bottom with motherly love? That shit's going on the fridge door stat. You want the grass blue? You want the sea green? Bang: it's green.

When the subject is joy and fun and frolic, kids' drawings can be little slices of magic. However, when the subject is fear and hatred and monsters, things can be just that much darker. Don't believe me? Go check out some of the images at The Monster Engine, where artist Dave Devries has taken kids drawings and turned them into surprisingly chilling portraits of a nightmare world adults have little notion of. Here's one to get you started. Here's another. Scared yet?

What makes these things so scary, I think, is that kids have no filter, no self-editing apparatus--whatever's in their deepest, darkest little thoughts, it comes out there on the page. And it's this horror that director Bernard Rose and writer Matthew Jacobs explore in the excellent 1988 kiddie horror flick, Paperhouse.

Make yourself at home.

Little Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) is a troubled kid. Bullied by her classmates at the British public school* she attends, Anna acts out by saucily defying her teacher and skipping class with her sexually precocious best friend to put on makeup and talk about snogging. Her mother Kate (Glenne Headly) is a good mom but at the end of her rope, having to hold the household together and make a living as a photographer while Anna's Dad (New School Barnabas Collins Ben Cross) travels around the country looking for work.

*Which would be called a "private school" by all us Yanks. See also "separated by a common language" etc.

With an absent father and a distracted, exhausted mom, Anna channels all her hopes and worries into art, filling a little green composition book with fanciful drawings of a house on a desolate landscape, with a wrought iron gate and huge standing stones in the yard. Things take a turn for the weird when, overcome with a fever at school, Anna faints and awakens to find herself in the dream world of her drawing--the simply drawn house now full-size on the horizon, the stones around it like huge, poorly drawn sentries. She ventures up to the house and knocks on the door, but of course no one answers, and she wakes up in bed with Dr. Sarah (Harry Potter's Gemma Jones, rockin' the Dame Judy-Do) telling her she needs to take a few days to recuperate from her mysterious illness.

Being a bright kid and not yet old enough to fall immediately into "But this *can't* be the house I drew!" mode, Anna quickly tumbles to what's going on and decides to draw herself a playmate. She pencils a little boy's face in the window of the house, but a slip of the pencil gives him a frown rather than a smile. She tries to erase it, but finds she can't--the first hint that something other than her fertile imagination is at work here.

Godzilla doll on nightstand = movie shorthand for "Weird Crap Will Happen to This Kid"

When she goes to sleep that night, Anna finds herself back at the paper house, and sure enough an unhappy little boy is now staring down at her from the upstairs window. The boy's name is Marc (Elliott Spiers), and he's not too interested in making friends. When Anna demands he come down and let her in, he says he can't because there aren't any stairs--of course because Anna hasn't drawn any. More than that, though, he tells her she must leave. "Go away! Don't you understand? It's dangerous around here! Dangerous!" After that warning, Anna awakens with the fever sweats and gets to work drawing the inside of the house.

Enough cannot be said about the excellent production design in this movie--the paper house is a thing of beauty, absolutely faithful to Anna's drawing and realized in a way that makes it both childish and strangely ominous. Production designer Gemma Jackson and art directors Anne Tilby and Frank Walsh are to be lauded.

Back in the dream world during her next nap, Anna goes inside and upstairs, where her drawings are realized as strange, oddly shaped radios, huge bottles of cola, a hamburger stacked eight levels high, and tennis rackets hanging in mid-air. Marc warms to her a little, but can't walk--Anna presumes because she didn't draw his legs originally. She tries to explain that she's his creator, but of course he's not buying it.

"I like what you've done with the place."

Back at home Anna is clearly very, very sick, and during one of her waking periods we get some more information about her absent Dad, who apparently also had something of a drinking problem. Anna's resentment about his being away bubbles to the surface, as well as her desire for his return. While she's awake she draws some legs for Marc and a fruit tree in the yard, relishing in her status as creator.

However, since all her drawings come straight from her subconscious, her troubled state of mind starts to tell on her dreamworld. For instance, she enters the house to find the legs she drew for mark standing on the stairs, alone, in an odd and strangely chilling scene. The radio she drew for Marc is also making strange noises, garbled staticky sounds that often seem to be the voice of an angry, scolding man. But Marc is getting nicer and happier with her, even if he doesn't believe she's his creator, and wishes the radio worked. With the faith of a child, Anna says "My Dad could fix it! I'll draw him next time I'm awake!" And then the real show begins.

Of course Anna draws her father with a hammer--for fixing things--but when she draws his face she messes up again, making him look "like a madman." Of course things once drawn cannot be undrawn on her paper, so she scratches out her father's face with much more anger than required. In a fit of childish hurt, she crumples the whole drawing and throws it in the bin. That night she has no dreams.

Where's a pair of pale green pants when you need 'em?

However, the next day she learns from Dr. Sarah that Marc might just be real--a patient of hers who has muscular distophy and who suddenly got worse the previous night--and Anna goes digging in the trash to retrieve it. Of course when she gets to her dream world again, everything is broken, darker, changed, and her father is there, but not the way she'd hoped...

It's this part of the movie that really rockets it from childish fantasy to full-out horror, as Paper Dad is a terrifying, shadowy boogeyman with all of the bad qualities of Anna's real father, and a nasty hammer for a weapon to boot. The broken, darkened landscape is the stuff of nightmares, and a few of the scenes as Anna and Marc struggle to escape gave me genuine chills. To say more just wouldn't be fair--this is a movie you should all see for yourselves.

Bernard Rose does a great job with the direction of this flick, not only in the excellent Paper World scenes, but also in the movie's "real world." Rose constructs many of the scenes to look like extreme perspective drawings, particularly when Anna and her friend are playing hide and seek at an abandoned train station. He also effectively conjures Anna's fever-weirded state of mind with hand-held shots following the sick girl around her house, giving everything a slightly unreal atmosphere that puts the audience right there in her point of view and actually makes you worried for her. And the nightmare sequence in the world of Anna's drawing is real jaw-dropper, full of nightmarish visuals and eerie suspense. Rose obviously put these talents to use again when he directed the equally nightmarish but more adult-oriented 1992 fear flick Candyman.

Daddy's Home

The acting is good too, especially from Glenne Headly as Anna's overwrought but still well-meaning mother, trying to deal with her daughter's school problems and sickness, while at the same communicating her own emotional fragility and loneliness thanks her irresponsible, absent hubby. And Ben Cross is really scary in the dream world, so much so that when he shows up for real in the movie's perhaps-overlong denouement, you still can't fully trust him.

Charlotte Burke as Anna does a good job too, so fresh faced and innocent that you can't help being concerned about her. She overdoes it a bit in the high-drama action sequences, but this is mostly a function of her age, I think. Elliot Spiers as Marc does much better--a really excellent performance of the lonely, scared, and ultimately very ill playmate in Anna's created world.

Watching Paperhouse I was reminded more than once of Tim Burton's more child-centered works, as well as the darker parts of The Neverending Story--not so much in the creatures and landscapes, but the tone of it, the dark fairy tale vibe that those flicks pull off so well. Though it could have ended a good 15 minutes before it did, I still left Paperhouse feeling like I had watched a wonderful, scary, and even meaningful movie about the horrors of childhood and how we all grow through them.

"Seuss-Cycle, don't fail me now!"

Paperhouse has been released on DVD in the UK, but hasn't made it stateside yet. However, you can watch the movie on YouTube (or could a couple of weeks ago, when this post on the super-duper site Kindertrauma reminded me of the flick and made me seek it out), and if you're into the Old Formats, VHS tapes can be found on auction sites as well. It loses a little steam once the fairy world gives way to the real in the final act, but still worth a look to any fan of darker kiddie-fare. 2.75 thumbs. Check it out.

And thanks to Kindertrauma for bringing it to the top of my watch list! You guys rule!

Glass Houses are to Stones as Paper Houses are to Matches


The Costuminatrix said...

I've been looking for this film for a looooong time - should've remembered it when I was actually IN the UK and able to buy it. Your review makes me want to see it even more!! I've never even been able to find it on VHS....

prof. grewbeard said...

thanx for reminding me about this, i haven't seen it for a long time.

Tower Farm said...

I was obsessed with Ben Cross/Barnabas Collins in the mid-90s and wanted to see this movie so badly. I'd totally forgotten about it until now. I guess I need to search it out.

T. R Xands said...

Ahhh I saw this one day on FearNet but I couldn't get past the scene where she sees her house drawing for the first time :/ now I want to finish it, if only I knew it's genius.

Jay Clarke said...

Excellent well thought out review guys. This is one of my faves from the old VHS days and I used to recommend it often at the video store I worked at! And STILL NO REGION 1 DVD release!!! So many curiosities just waiting to be mined. Psychos In Love and Pieces have recently gotten the special DVD treatment, so why not titles like Paperhouse, Deadly Eyes and The Video Dead!

L Wilks said...

I absolutely loved this film ever since it came out in 1988, and it remains one of my favourite films. Sadly, (I only found out last night) Elliott Spiers, the boy who played Marc in the film, committed suicide six years later in 1994, aged just 21. His melancholy in the film is astounding for a 15 year old, and it is made all the more haunting that he was so obviously lonely and troubled troubled in real life.

Sydney said...

great great great movie. sad that it is soooo hard to find especially here in manila. I did a little research too about the movie and the cast, wondering where they are now. Sad to hear that elliott spiers (marc)died a few years after the movie. They say it's suicide but the paperhouse FB page states that "...he took a bad reaction to an inoculation for Malaria. I think he fell out of a high window while hallucinating. "

garydonnelley said...

Charlotte Burke and Elliot Spiers both give excellent performances, but Glenne Headly is terrible! I don't know why she is because i have seen her in 'Mr Hollands Opus'and she's very good. Anyway in Paperhouse she was terrible.

john said...

a great review of a great film. thank you.

john said...

i think the dean stockwell version of the secret garden would be a good companion piece to this. sweetie, the reflective skin and david lynch's eraserhead, blue velvet, lost highway and mulholland drive are also highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

According to his mother on the IMDb boards, Elliott had a bad reaction to an anti malaria medication which caused psychosis and committed suicide by jumping out of his hospital window. His grave can be seen on Find A Grave .com Otherwise his mom described him as perfectly normal and loving and artistic before he became ill, so at least it was not a case of a natural depression, it was caused by a medication.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the information.
the entire film is now on youtube in 9 or 10 chapters.

Anonymous said...

heavenly creatures and sweetie as well as the original cat people + the curse of the cat people are highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

This movie is a surreal and passionate nightmare, a nightmare of tragic love and strength forced into a youthful and creative heart. Elliott Spiers death in 1994 is truly a loss to our world, and I am sure he is still perfecting his talents where ever he is. A true kindred spirit! What a brilliant film to have in is portfolio; A perfect match of beauty.

Anonymous said...

Like someone already said, a great review of a great film!!
grettings from Argentina

Shelly said...

Elliott Spiers was perfectly normal and happy during the making of Paperhouse. In 1991, he became ill when he suffered an adverse reaction to an anti-malaria medication. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of his doctors, nurses, family and of Elliott himself, he spent the next two years fighting to regain his former health to no avail. He eventually developed schizophrenia and was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London. On Saturday 15 January 1994, either because of a premeditated act on his part or as a result of the symptoms of his mental illness, Elliott jumped from one of the top floors of the hospital and was killed. He was 20 years old at the time of his death.

His mother, renowned voice and dialect coach Catherine Charlton, confirmed his death on imdb. A memorial to Elliott, along with a photograph of him taken shortly before the onset of his illness can be seen here:

Anonymous said...

thanks for the information.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks everyone for the continued comments! And for all the information on poor Eliot Spiers. What a tragedy--he was clearly a talented child actor, and never got the chance to realize that or any of his other promising talents. RIP.

C.C said...

Could Shelley who posted about Elliott please contact Catherine Charlton. thank you

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi, C.C.--Catherine Charlton, I presume? I wish I had some information to give you, but I don't know who the commenter was who posted all that information. If there's anything I can do to help, please let me know.

Anonymous said...

I love this film!! And it's so sad about poor Elliott. Is Shelly's post accurate? Is it really true that he took his own life? How dreadful for that to happen to someone so young.

May he rest in peace.

Taxandria said...

As far as I know, what Shelly wrote is correct. There was one post from a man on the imdb boards who said he worked at the hospital when Elliott died and he said that it was not a premeditated act but based on a "fixed delusion" at the time. The only persons who really know are his family and his doctors (maybe). It is a tragedy either way and I can't help but feel a little heartbroken whenever I watch paperhouse or his other works. I first saw Paperhouse when I was a teen and thought Elliott was just gorgeous. I was shocked, absolutely shocked when I found out about his death. From what I have gathered, he was a warm person, artistic, talented and loved his family very much. Even though I never knew him, I still feel sorrow over what happened. For him and his family and friends. I had a friend who also died at 20 from lupus after many years of suffering and you never really get over it when a young person passes.

Taxandria said...

Also worth noting is that Elliott was in a film called Taxandria after Paperhouse and though his voice was dubbed it's a very interesting and artistic film and he's excellent in it.

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