Paperhouse ★★★½

It’s always seemed to me that Bernard Rose deserved a better career then the one he has. You’d think that, after making a critically beloved and commercially successful film like “Candyman,” Rose would’ve become a well known director. He’s made a few notable movies since then – a Beethoven biopic, several Tolstoy adaptations – but most of his subsequent entries into the horror genre have been poorly received.

Before making that famous Clive Barker adaptation, Rose made an earlier horror film… Sort of. “Paperhouse” isn’t quite a surreal horror film and isn’t quite a children’s fantasy flick but a tantalizing combination of both.

While sitting bored in school, 11 year old Anna absent-mindedly doodles a drawing of a house. Later that day, she collapses. Diagnosed with a glandular inflammation, Anna is instructed to stay in bed. During the day, she adds to the drawing of the house. At night, she sleeps, visiting the changing home. In the house, she meets Marc, a boy unable to walk. Soon, Anna learns that Marc is a real boy with a muscular illness. As the two meet every night, Anna’s attempt to change her dream world for the better sometimes produces frightening results.

“Paperhouse” captures a dream like tone with its eerie production design. The titular structure is slate grey, leaning sideways, standing among a barren field. The interior of the house features strangely slanted angles and stairways. The building stands desolate in a barren field.

Yet other strange flourishes characterizes “Paperhouse’s” surreal environment. Anna attempts to draw Marc working legs. Instead, useless clay legs appear in the stairway. She draws an ice cream machine but forgets to draw cones to eat the dessert with. She draws a radio but it's large and childish.

Most interestingly, the dream and the waking world overlap in interesting ways. While a paramedic performs CPR on Anna, a monster in her dream pounds on her chest. The blaring of a clock radio echoes throughout the house. When carried into a hospital, Anna floats dreamily up the staircase of the paperhouse. Little touches like these make “Paperhouse’s” dream world seem appropriately unreal.

Anna’s life in the Paperhouse reflect her fears and desires. She slowly develops romantic feelings for Marc, the literal boy of her dreams. The romance develops naturally, as the two youths are initially somewhat critical of each other. An early reference to “snogging” becomes relevant later as the two kiss for the first time.

Yet the house isn’t a retreat from reality either. The adolescent mind can also be a scary place. Anna’s father is an alcoholic who is rarely home. She draws him into the house but, in a rage, scratches out his eyes. Thus, the dream version of Anna’s father becomes a blind, violent monster. The girl’s youthful resentment of her father manifests as a horror movie, an atmospheric sequence of a hammer wielding madman stalking Anna and Marc. The resolution to this scene – her act of tearing her dad out of the drawing – plays out as frighteningly literal. “Paperhouse” shows how intense an eleven year old’s mind can be.

The technical aspects of “Paperhouse” are impressive. Bernard Rose’s direction is frequently gorgeous. The shadowy shots of the nightmare version of Anna’s father descending down a hill are deeply creepy. Anna’s first venture into the dream world positively recalls "Christina's World," the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is equal parts foreboding and enchanting, one of the divisive composer’s best soundtrack.

Mostly, it’s the young cast that shines in “Paperhouse.” The film is the sole screen credit of Charlotte Burke, whose Anna is insensitive, bratty, wounded, inquisitive, emotional, and ultimately brave. Elliot Spiers, who died suddenly while “Paperhouse” was awaiting release, gives a similarly nuanced performance as Marc.

While the ending is ultimately hopeful, there’s still a creeping sense that things could easily go wrong throughout most of “Paperhouse.” Which is appropriate, I suppose, considering how easily dreams can become nightmares. Considering the dark and strange places the film goes, it might be surprising to read that “Paperhouse” was adapted from a children’s novel. “Marianne Dreams” by Catherine Storr was previously adapted as a BBC serial called “Escape into Night” which was, reportedly, more faithful to the book.

My copy of the flick, purchased from the VHSPS, hilariously begins with an ad for a psychic hotline and concludes with a commercial for a sports bloopers tape. Which certainly adds to the film’s surreal trappings.