Friday, October 23, 2009
#72: Paperhouse (Bernard Rose, 1988)
I'm guessing it's hard to make any movie, even a piece of dogshit, but it's probably really, really, really hard to make a movie that succeeds as a horror film, a children's movie, a character study of a young girl, a fantasy, and a compelling family drama that manages to be emotionally affecting without being sentimental, manipulative, or banal. Paperhouse somehow achieves all these varying, counter-intuitive, contradictory tones. I really liked this movie.
Paperhouse has yet to be released on DVD in the United States, which is ri-goddamn-diculous, but the circa-1989 Vestron VHS tape I had to visit three fine local video stores to rent compensated for its lesser image quality by wowing me with trailers for a David Hasselhoff/Linda Blair vehicle entitled Bail Out, an advertisement for Nancy Reagan's astrologer's 900 number (complete with a disclaimer warning that the ad was not meant to convince anyone of the existence of astrology), and a Sports Illustrated subscription ad that offered a free VHS of Amazing Biff Bam Blooopers (not a typo). This might lead you to believe that Paperhouse is a piece of schlock. You would be incorrect. Paperhouse may be a low-budget film, but it's a work of undeniable skill and visual invention.
The film is carried by its lead actress, the then-14 but playing and looking younger Charlotte Burke, who never appeared in any other films. This is surprising, considering how good she is in this movie. She plays a young schoolgirl who keeps fainting and dreaming strange dreams about a house and a young boy she's been drawing in her notebook. She contracts a particularly dangerous fever and has to remain bedridden for several weeks. I'm already getting frustrated because any plot synopsis of this movie sounds cliched, stupid, and heavy-handed, but the film rarely, if ever, plays out in such predictable ways. Anyway, she keeps having these oddball dreams, and she slowly realizes that anything she adds to her drawings shows up in these dreams. She eventually makes a close connection with a boy she's drawn, and they have to hide from a creepy, menacing weirdo who shows up in the dream. Part of what I love about these scenes is that the creepy weirdo is actually a nice person in waking life, but the girl has very complicated, frustrated feelings about this person's absence in her life, so he manifests as a nightmarish figure in her dreams.
This movie always makes a right step, even though it's constantly tip-toeing over a landscape full of narrative landmines. I was glad and enthusiastic during its entire running time. See it on crappy VHS today.
The director, Bernard Rose, tends to alternate smart horror films with modern updates of Tolstoy. What a strange career. He also directed Candyman, which I loved in high school but am hesitant to re-visit because of that high school love; Immortal Beloved, a bio-pic of Beethoven starring Gary Oldman; and Ivansxtc, an update of Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Illyich" set in contemporary Hollywood.
This movie deserves a more sophisticated analysis, but I'm drunk, it's Friday night, and I've got a lot of shit to do this weekend. I'll just say that it's very good.