Bernard Rose’s debut film Paperhouse 1988 is an extraordinary fantasy horror, says guest writer BARNABY MARRIOTT
YEAR RELEASED: 1988
DIRECTOR: Bernard Rose
CAST: Charlotte Burke, Ben Cross, Glenne Headly, Elliott Spiers, Gemma Jones
Paperhouse 1988 Review
Paperhouse 1988 is the extraordinary directorial debut of British filmmaker Bernard Rose, before he hit the big time in Hollywood a few years later with Candyman (1992).
The story focuses on a British schoolgirl named Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke). The film opens on her 11th birthday at school, where she is shown to be stroppy and argumentative, standing up to both a classroom bully and an unfair teacher. Things aren’t that much better at home for Anna, where she has a strained relationship with her mother Kate (Glenne Headly), while her father (Ben Cross) is absent from the family, working away overseas, and there are subtle hints that his alcoholic tendencies may be another reason why he’s not with his family right now.
Anna becomes ill and bedridden with glandular fever, and starts to have recurring dreams about a house which she had earlier drawn in her school exercise book. The dreams begin to take over her life, and she finds that every time she alters the picture in some way, the dreams change too. When Anna’s doctor (Gemma Jones) tells her about a patient of hers named Marc (Elliott Spiers), a sensitive boy who can’t walk, Anna finds this Marc of the real world now inhabits her dreamworld, and seems to have no memory of life outside the dreams.
Things take a sinister turn when Anna draws her dad into the picture, and draws him with an angry expression, and in a fit of anger scratches out his eyes, resulting in the father appearing in the dreams as a terrifying blind psychopath, with both Anna and Marc fighting for their lives in this dream which has now become a nightmare.
Paperhouse 1988 is an imaginative, suspenseful and beautifully made film. The haunting music score adds to the ethereal and haunting dreamworld. It isn’t always easy when a movie relies so heavily on the lead performance of a child performer, but Charlotte Burke – a then 13 year old non-professional, making her debut, out of approximately 1500 young girls who auditioned for the role of Anna, is extraordinary.
She appears in every single scene of the film, and she is to be applauded for the work she does here. Anna is not a hugely likeable character to begin with, when we see her acting up at school, telling lies, and arguing with her mum – but as we get to know Anna better, seeing the hints of worry about what the family is going through with an absent father with a drink problem, and seeing her mature in her concern for Marc who she never meets in the real world, only her dream realm, do we start to root and care for this young protagonist.
Strangely enough, after this film, Charlotte Burke never acted in anything ever again, which is a shame, as she definitely had a natural talent. Director Bernard Rose recalls that many years later, a now adult Burke called him on the phone unexpectedly. She told him she had seen Paperhouse again for the first time in a long time, and how much she loved it. When Rose asked why she hadn’t continued with acting, she said simply that she had made a film she was proud of, and didn’t want to do anything else, as this one meant so much to her.
Burke is supported beautifully by the sensitive young actor Elliott Spiers, who plays Marc. Spiers sadly died very young, just a few years after Paperhouse, and it is a great shame that we never saw him in anything else, as unlike Burke he wanted to continue with acting, and perhaps would have gone on to have a successful career.
Glenne Headly gives perhaps the most interesting performance in the film, as Anna’s mum Kate, who doesn’t quite understand what is going on with her daughter and these dreams, and at times is very maternal and other times very frustrated.
Headly deserves a great deal of credit, for the difficult task she had after the film was finished. She had played the role with her natural American accent, and then when they decided that Kate needed to be British like everyone else in the film, the producers were going to dub her entire performance with an English actress. Headly asked if she could do it herself, and flew from the States to the UK, and spent two solid days looping all her dialogue with a flawless British accent.
The look of the film is excellent, with interesting cinematography and production design of the dream house, and we can be thankful that it was made at a time when it couldn’t be ruined by over-the-top CGI and special effects, which no doubt will be the case if this little masterpiece is ever to be remade.
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Watch Paperhouse 1988 Trailer
BARNABY MARRIOTT is a British film fan. He loved growing up in the 1980s, and is nostalgic about the days of renting videotapes for the weekend. In the 1990s he was film critic for new cinema releases for The Argus newspaper in Brighton & Hove. INSTAGRAM: @marriottbarnaby TWITTER: @barnabymarriott