Anna is a troubled 11-year-old with a lot going on in her life. She has few friends, is punished for dealing with bullies in school, and her father is mysteriously absent. On top of that, she’s been stricken with a case of glandular fever and has been confined to bed after a number of fainting spells, something that she just cannot stand. To help deal with this, Anna escapes into the fantasy world she created through a picture she drew, a drawing consisting of a misshapen house in an empty field.
The first time she visits, the house is empty and there’s no one there to let her in. So she creates an occupant for the home, a boy named Mark. Mark is lonely and sad and unable to move his legs, and Anna assumes he’s like that because she drew him that way. What’s more, she learns that even if Mark could walk, he still can’t answer the door, because Anna neglected to draw stairs. As Anna continues to lie in bed, she begins to draw and make improvements to her dreamscape, but the more she tries to help Mark, the more nightmarish her dreamworld becomes.
Something tells me this wasn’t intentional….
Paperhouse is a 1988 fantasy film (loosely) based on the novel Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. It kind of feels like a darker, more modern take on Alice in Wonderland (though the Alice story itself is pretty dark when you think about it), except instead of following around the prim-and-proper Alice, we’re forced to watch a cynical, if not slightly obnoxious pre-teen who is angry, rebellious and has several hang ups regarding her dysfunctional family that would probably be best handled by consulting with the expertise of a very patient licensed therapist.
In other words, the child has issues.
With a description like that, it’s very easy to be a little too hard on Anna, and it’s really not difficult to see why. Initially, she seems to spend a good portion of the beginning of the film doing her best to push everyone’s buttons. Younger viewers may see her resistance of authority and short fuse as the beginnings of a rebellious anti-hero, because, honestly, who among us at one point or another didn’t want to one-up the bully at school, or tell off an annoying adult who you knew wasn’t listening to a word you said. Adult viewers, however, will likely see her attitude as little more than the result of being a dreadful little snot. I think the word some like to use to describe such children without sounding like an asshole is precocious…I am not typically one of those people.
She likes Godzilla though. So surely she can’t be all bad…
But as the film progresses, we learn she’s a bit more than that. Yes, Anna is angry. But she’s angry because she’s lonely and she feels like her own mother is lying to her about where her father is and what he’s doing. So she retreats into a dream world where she’s not alone, and she lashes out in the real world because she’s eleven and hasn’t been taught better coping skills. Considering the bad impression the film gave her at the beginning, I was surprised that they did such a good job of ultimately softening her image.
One might think that since Anna has created this alternate dream world, that the film is filled with bright colors and a fantastical setting. If this were another children’s tale, you might be right. But while I mention Alice in Wonderland when describing Paperhouse, a more apt comparison to the films tone would likely be a less dreary Pan’s Labyrinth. But where Pan’s Labyrinth was filled with the fantastically strange, Anna, for all her youth and seemingly endless energy, has a rather dark and dismal imagination. Her drawings, and thus her dream world, are filled with empty rooms, vast, barren fields, malshapened objects, and just a general sense of darkness. And that’s before she even tries to add any ‘improvements’ and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
Girl desperately needs to take an interior design class.
It’s an excellent representation of not only her profound loneliness, but also, I think, the limits of a child’s imagination, especially when they lack any life experience or understanding of what’s necessary outside of their own immediate needs and wants. For instance, I mentioned that she initially couldn’t go up to talk to Mark because she had neglected to draw stairs. This ignorance to detail is not a one time occurance. She draws an icecream machine, but neglects to include cones or cups. She draws a stereo, but it doesn’t come with instructions. And there are doors, but none of them have locks, a fact that ultimately comes back to bite her. But fear not. Thankfully by the end of the movie, she’s learned to…well, not necessarily plan ahead, but at least she’s learned to come prepared.
I kinda bungled it last time. You give it a go.
But even with all the darkness and oddly shaped pieces of furniture, Paperhouse still manages to look stunning. The dream world may be a bit bleak (and later very dark), but at no point is it not pleasing to look at. It’s clear that each shot was carefully planned and each frame carefully considered. Fields may be empty, but they look gorgeous, and though every item in a room is horribly disproportionate, or even downright fugly, everything is placed in such a way to maximize aesthetics. And while the ‘real’ world may not be given quite as much careful consideration, it’s clear that similar attention to detail was given. The movie can be bleak as hell, but it may also be one of the prettiest things I’ve seen.
You have no idea how many screenshots I took of this film. I literally have dozens more.
So is Paperhouse any good? Yes, I think so. It’s protagonist may not be ideal, and it’s very gloomy and has some downright dark moments towards the end that make it tread into horror film territory, so you may not want to show it to the smaller children, but overall I think it’s a solid package. It does have some tonal issues, some sound issues (Mom was dubbed, but not too terribly) and there are some plot elements that are brought up and never actually addressed or properly explained. But for a film that merges fantasy and reality, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For kids, it’s an interesting fantasy film, but adults could also enjoy it for the subtle commentary. At the very least I think it’s worth a watch for the lovely visuals and soundtrack (which was partly scored by Hans Zimmer).
Paperhouse had been listed on Amazon Prime, but has since been removed.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray, but only in Europe. The US has yet to receive an official release beyond VHS and Laserdisc, which, quite frankly, is a damn shame.