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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Friday, May 8, 2009
Where's a pair of pale green pants when you need 'em?