Fever dreams, daydreams, nightmares, the world of art and imagination: These are the subjects of Bernard Rose’s “Paperhouse” (AMC Century 14). But the film isn’t shot in that languorous, soft-focus style we associate with movies about reverie. The vision here is laceratingly sharp. Ultimately, “Paperhouse” becomes a film about how dreams can subvert or attack the real world, open it up to fear, loathing and maybe rebirth.
In “Paperhouse’s” dream world, the light is pitiless, pouring down on a doppelganger land of eerily isolated fields and trashed houses, full of harsh surfaces, hidden monsters and keen, knife-like edges--a world ready to crack open over a hellish, fiery core. Much of the movie is set in the mind of a sick, bedridden little girl, creating her own territory on paper, with paints or crayons, and in the inner chambers of her mind--in dreams and delirium. And it becomes grindingly intense, a visually and aurally sophisticated little shocker, shivery and ripe with childhood terrors.
“Paperhouse” is based on a Catherine Storr novel called “Marianne Dreams.” Here, the re-named Anna (Charlotte Burke) is a little girl who makes childish pictures and then dreams herself into a world where they become real. The tilted house of her drawings stands huge and abandoned in a vast, deserted field of endlessly waving gray-green grass, its rooms occupied by another of her creations: a little, legless, stick-figure boy called Marc (Elliott Spiers).
Is he also real? Anna’s doctor has another patient, another Marc: suffering from muscular dystrophy. And, gradually, Anna becomes convinced that the fates of the dream Marc, the drawn Marc and the real Marc are inextricably joined, and that her drawings are changing all their lives, perhaps destroying them. Every personal and psychic horror she can imagine, including the conversion of her own father into a mad, dark stalker, is dredged up as she seeks to save her friend: the boy she never meets in the waking world.
There’s nothing boring about “Paperhouse.” The sound track and images keep working you up, squeezing out cold sweat. Obviously, director Bernard Rose saw the novel’s central conceit, that dreams come true, as a visual springboard. And, though he and script writer Matthew Jacobs haven’t delved far into the psychology--haven’t really made Anna’s dilemma real--they’ve had a field day with the dreams, the crazy surfaces, the hallucinatory edges.
These dreams--the horrific paternal assault, the mysterious bicycles, helicopters and ice-cream machines--are like Andrew Wyeth under ether, like crisp, deep TV-ad visions out of Dali and de Chirico. The photographic style, by Rose and cinematographer Mike Southon (Ken Russell’s “Gothic”) probably owes as much to Rose’s career in rock videos, as Southon’s taste for Hammer horror movies. In their eyes, both nightmare and real world have a diamond-hard brightness, sliding into the terrifying, skewed emptiness of the dream fields surrounding Anna’s paper house and a huge phallic lighthouse.
The child actress who plays Anna, Charlotte Burke, may be too old for the part. She is 13, perhaps playing 11, but the drawings she has supposedly made look like the work of a 6- or 7-year-old. Still, Burke she has an admirable resilience and energy; so does Spiers. And the adults around her have a scarily equivocal quality: Glenne Headly, the corrupt ingenue of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” as her too-rational mother, Ben Cross of “Chariots of Fire” as her night-and-day father, Gemma Jones as her skeptical doctor.
The ideas here aren’t new. Postwar ‘40s British films often took us into these dream worlds and childhood realms. But the technology is, as recent dream-films like “Time Bandits” or “Dreamchild” have already shown. The movie all but attacks you, largely through its lethally sharp images, and a music score by Hans Zimmer (“Rain Man”) and Stanley Myers that is full of dark jags, edges and harsh screams too. “Paperhouse” (PG-13, despite intense, nightmarish scenes) puts up an impeccable surface, rips it up, reveals a hell underneath; an incongruous paper world of flesh and paint, blood and fire, oceans of tears.
A Vestron Pictures Inc. presentation of a Working Title production. Producers Tim Bevan, Sarah Radclyffe. Director Bernard Rose. Script Matthew Jacobs. Camera Mike Southon. Music Hans Zimmer, Stanley Myers. Editor Dan Rae. Art directors Frank Walsh, Ann Tilby. With Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headly, Ben Cross, Gemma Jones.