Take a Drink: for each addition to the drawing
Take a Drink: for each visit to the Paperhouse
Take a Drink: whenever Charlotte Burke disrespects an adult
Take a Drink: for the photograph of Dad
Do a Shot: for each fainting spell
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
The cinema world lost many things with the passing of Roger Ebert, a list that could comprise this entire piece, but one of my favorite of his aspects was his almost unique ability to introduce or elevate the profile of an unestablished artist.
He could lay a sick burn, too, but that’s another story…
One director to get the Ebert bump was a young Englishman named Bernard Rose, whose under the radar, uneven career we’re taking a look at this week. Paperhouse wasn’t his debut, but it was his coming out party. In it, a young girl (Charlotte Burke) with a worsening glandular fever periodically escapes into a fantasy world reflecting a picture of a house she drew. When she later draws a person in its window, this fantasy intensifies, blurring the lines between imagination, psychology, and reality.
This sort of Alice in Wonderland/playground of the mind type of plot has been done many a time before, but arguably never as menacingly.
Yes, even more than Demon Bowie
This really isn’t a children’s film even if it seems to be presented as such. Rose sets an unsettling tone right from the get-go, and avoids the temptation to sugarcoat anything, even for contrast. The Paperhouse may have its roots in Charlotte’s childlike innocence, but reflects both her physical condition and her difficult childhood, with a largely absentee globetrotting father and fitfully contentious relationship with a mother who clearly doesn’t know how to deal with her.
Rose and his production team do a spectacular job rendering Charlotte’s drawing, and these factors it reflects, in (literally) concrete terms. The production design is incredibly imaginative, almost Burtonesque at points, but also vaguely terrifying, a feeling Rose accentuates by keeping us off-balance both with his weird, unpredictably developing script structure and horror film approach.
Somethin’ ain’t right here.
Also, the score, from Stanley Myers (The Deer Hunter) and a very young Hans Zimmer mixes in James Carpenter-style keyboard and theremin riffs with a more traditional score, constantly keeping you on edge, regardless of whether it’s juxtaposed against mundane images or heightening hellish nightmare tableaus.
There’s a bit of an incongruous combination of childish elements, like Charlotte’s stuffed animal-packed room or even the imprecise drawing itself, and teenage ones, like her rebellion at school and home. It seems to be skipping a couple years in either direction for an eleven year old.
Most disappointing is the ending, which after such an exciting climax feels like a damp squib. It pointlessly muddies the waters, turning the entire structure of the film into a head-scratcher, and not in a good way. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes.
A little bit Burton, a little bit Amblin, and a little bit Halloween, Paperhouse is an accomplishment of mood and design, and a damn creepy little fairytale to boot.