Obscure Film Friday: Paperhouse (1989)

“The best reason for having dreams is that in dreams no reasons are necessary.”
― Ashleigh Brilliant

This week’s review is an interesting little gem from the late 1980’s. Loosely based on the classic British children’s novel Marriane Dreams, Paperhouse takes us on a dark and at times frightening journey into the fevered dreams of a young British schoolgirl named Anna.

Anna (Charlotte Burke), is given to drawing in her composition book in between outbursts of acting up and acting out. Already a bit unruly simply by being on the cusp of her twelfth birthday (weren’t we all “all grown up” in our minds back then?), Anna finds school boring and is unhappy with her home life as well. Most recently, she’s drawn an oddly shaped house that strikes her fancy — much to the displeasure of her math instructor who throws her out of class for her antics. Shortly thereafter, Anna develops a mysterious fever, and begins to dream about the house she has drawn. As her condition inexplicably worsens each day, the bond between her drawings and the dreamworld intensifies. What Anna draws in this world, appears to come true in the other place. Even to the point of bringing others into that world.

There’s much to like about Paperhouse. One of the great strengths of the film is that it does not offer an explanation as to why or how things are happening the way they are. Dreams are not bound by the logic or the physics of the real world, and the film makes no effort to make them so. Dreams simply are. It gives the film an atmospheric, faery tale quality through most of its 94-minute running time. Likewise, the film is visually impressive. The dreamworld is a stark, haunting place. The late Roger Ebert (who gave the film four stars, in a spoiler-laden review) described the film as being akin to a Bergman outing in its imagery.

The film also benefits from the generally strong performances from the cast. Burke is particularly good as Anna. It’s a shame that this was apparently her only performance as an actress. Also notable are veteran UK actress Gemma Jones’ turn as Anna’s doctor and Elliot Spears’ as the retiring and waif-like Marc.

The film is not without its flaws. Paperhouse starts strongly, and borders on the superb for the first hour or so. The story begins to lose its way in the final half-hour as director Bernard Rose takes Anna’s dreamworld from the mysterious to the terrifying. To be fair, this is no easy task. And the effort is somewhat successful. But the experience is jarring as the atmosphere built-up to that point gives way to fairly standard horror tropes. The soundtrack does not help here, screaming “low-budget 80s slasher flick synthesizer” with every note. I remember thinking it was a bit like watching a PG version of a Freddy Krueger movie. It tarnishes an otherwise solid film.

Fortunately, the film recovers in the final few minutes with a satisfying and somewhat unexpected ending. It would be impossible to elaborate without giving away that ending, so I’ll just sum up in saying that Paperhouse is a flawed gem, but it is indeed a gem all the same.

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One aging Gen-X-er’s thoughts on life, humor, film, and whatever else tickles my fancy at the moment.

One aging Gen-X-er’s thoughts on life, humor, film, and whatever else tickles my fancy at the moment.