All posts by Simon Hyslop

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BLOODSUCKER’S HANDBOOK (2012)

AKA Enchiridion (B&W version)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: An unassuming campus priest is asked to help interrogate a prisoner who proclaims himself a vampire, then is forced to embark on a quest to hunt him down after he escapes.

Still from Bloodsucker's Handbook (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This seemingly simple shoestring-budget vampire tale takes a roundabout turn midway through, turning into an absurd neo-noir set in a world only vaguely similar to our own.

COMMENTS: In retrospect, I’m actually glad I watched Bloodsucker’s Planet before this one. Where Planet made me conscious of the issues that arise when a low budget film tries to tackle a concept outside its resources, Handbook left me appreciative of films that embrace their limited resources, using them to enhance the effectiveness—and, in this case, the weirdness—of the concept.

Clearly looking to spring its weird side on an unsuspecting audience, Bloodsucker’s Handbook starts out about as ordinary as a low budget tale of a modern vampire can get: Father Noah is approached by a group of sharp-suited G-men, who ask for his help questioning the film’s resident vampire overlord, Condu. The first half or so of the film is (primarily) concerned with this interrogation; and, simple as it is, it demonstrates ideal filmmaking sensibilities for a limited-resource indie production like this one. Working on a minimal scale, the film embraces its limitations, allowing a handful of actors and sets to carry the film.

And carry it they do. Or at the very least, one of them does. Despite his limited screentime, Jeremy Herrera, as Condu, really couldn’t be better cast. Whereas Planet’s villain had the air of a classic, an vampiric count, courteous and urbane, Condu has a more Orlok-like demeanor: leering, menacing, and blatantly evil, yet at the same time, strangely charming, in his shifty way. Condu takes charge of the interrogations right away, his delightfully evil presence dominating the screen. While Cory W Ahre’s performance as Father Noah is perhaps a little flat and understated, his passive bearing works well in these scenes as a counterpart to Herrera’s charisma. The two of them form a wonderful dynamic that genuinely sparks in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the interrogation room.

It’s around the film’s halfway point, however-–-when Condu escapes, kidnapping Father Noah’s illicit lover for leverage-–-that things take a turn for the extremely bizarre. Father Noah heads out in pursuit of Condu, and as we see more of Bloodsucker’s Handbook‘s world (which suddenly takes on a distinctively noirish tone), we learn that it is far less ordinary than it seemed at first glance. Dinosaurs and anthropomorphic animals mingle with humans in seedy bars, and sucking on toads is an epidemic addiction. At this point, it becomes clear that the film’s setting, which at first seemed quite ordinary, if somewhat retro, is in fact a bizarre alternate version of our own world.

This, of course, poses the danger of Handbook running into the same issues as Planet, undermining its coherence and effectiveness in an effort to tackle concepts bigger than its budget will allow for. However, much like the rest of the film, Handbook’s approach to its setting is self-aware; rather than attempting to delve deeply into the intricate workings of this bizarre world, it reveals its oddities in an almost incidental manner, showcasing them in casual shots. Like the protagonist, we only give them a brief glance before continuing on our journey. And like any good, weird indie ought to, Handbook embraces its limited resources and uses them to enhance the weirdness. The various non-human characters are represented by stop-motion figures, whose crude and janky motions lend them an unreal quality that fully immerses us in the feeling that this is a world unlike our own. (In one brilliantly self-aware sequence, the vampire’s historical origins are related in a stop-motion sequence that leaves the animator’s hands in the shots.)

That’s not to say that everything about the film’s second half is what I’d call precisely the right direction for the film to have taken. For one thing, it would have been nice if some of the weirdness of the setting had been at least vaguely hinted at earlier on. (In my opinion, rewatch value and post-viewing clarity are some of the most gratifying aspects of weird cinema.) More significantly, I regretted that showcasing the bizarre setting came at the cost of relegating Condu, easily the film’s strongest presence, to the background. Ahre’s performance simply isn’t strong enough to carry the narrative on its own; and while Valentine, the hard-boiled anthropomorphic dog P.I. that he hires to help him track down Condu, is an intriguing character, he simply isn’t enough to fill the void left by Herrera’s absence.

Still, Bloodsucker’s Handbook is an intriguing effort, and most assuredly the better sort of weird indie effort. I do think that the subsequent prequel grows a tad too ambitious and loses sight of what made the original film work; but nonetheless, I do hope that director Mark Beal continues this series and develops the unusual world it is set in… especially if he intends to continue the trend of including a token anthropomorphic animal who talks like a hardened noir character in every movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… despite the low quality Beal has shaped surrealistic tackiness into a thrilling dark horror film experience, probably most prudently undertaken with some absinthe on hand.”–Bradley Gibson, Film Threat (DVD)

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson, Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of , Joan Gerber, , Andy Devine, Frank Nelson

PLOT: A young clockwork mouse and his father find themselves lost in the world, encountering a host of eccentric characters.

Still from The Mouse and His Child (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Taking on the appearance of a standard-issue children’s animation, The Mouse and His Child casually delves into such topics as philosophy, destiny, and the search for infinity, all represented through a world absurd even by the standards of cartoon logic.

COMMENTS: The 1970s were a tumultuous time for animated cinema in the west. was making his scandalous debut, and films like Coonskin and Fritz the Cat were introducing the once-unthinkable notion that animated films clearly crafted for adults could, in fact, not only exist, but have a genuine market. Animated movies aimed at children remained dominated by Disney, who didn’t exactly release their most iconic features in this particular decade. Younger upstarts like Pixar and (ugh) Dreamworks hadn’t yet emerged to contest Disney’s place as the prime source of children’s animation.

That’s one of the reasons why The Mouse and His Child is so noteworthy. Not only did it have the audacity to enter into the heavily monopolized animation market, but it did so with a movie that took a vastly different approach to children’s entertainment.

It ought to be said that kids, especially ones raised on today’s media, probably won’t enjoy The Mouse and His Child all that much. But as a curiosity piece—an example of just how remarkably eccentric children’s animation can be while still technically fitting into that category—it’s really quite priceless.

I’ve not read the book that this movie was based on, nor have I read any of Russell Hoban’s other works; but if this adaptation is a faithful reflection of the source material, it’s hardly surprising that it was penned by an author who also dabbled in magical realism and had extensive experience writing for adults. Themes well outside the interests of any child dominate the narrative, and the film’s approach to the nature and structure of reality is one that, while not exactly elaborate, has more depth to it than is normal for a children’s film.

The story opens in a toy shop, where the titular mouse and his child—a pair of clockwork toys—have newly arrived. Here, all the clockwork mechanisms live under the strict leadership of a ghostly grandfather clock, who robotically instructs them that they are to do only what they are “wound to do” and that love, family, and free thought are not accommodated for under “clockwork rules.” It isn’t long, however, before an accidental spill off the table and into a bin sends the mice accidentally carted off out into the world, where they head off on a clearly allegorical quest to become “self-winding.”

On their journey, the Mouse and his Child encounter the various oddities of this world, which might be best described as akin to The Animals of Farthing Wood if Farthing Wood happened to be the campus of a liberal arts university. A crooked rat cons and swindles his way through the movie (like any good cartoon rodent) while delivering every line with a thespian trill. A would-be clairvoyant frog struggles to reconcile his sincere belief in the concept of destiny with his fraudulent fortune-telling racket. A shrew resides in a hole by a pond, obsessing over abstract mechanical theories whilst shrugging off the plight of the forlorn clockwork creatures whom his talents could aid. And in a lake, an aged turtle ponders furiously over the Droste image on the label of a discarded dog food tin, convinced that some great universal truth lies beyond “the last visible dog”.

What really sets The Mouse and His Child apart is not the barriers it breaks, but rather the absurd middle ground that it occupies, one so difficult to precisely pin down that it could be considered the sole example of its own sub-genre. Far too introspective and philosophical for children’s entertainment, yet never approaching the edginess and vulgarity typical of “adult” animation, it resembles, more than anything else, an absurd experiment: a bold attempt to marry philosophy and animation. Mixing these two was unheard of at the time, and even in our more explorative day and age, there are few folks out there who flirt with the notion of exploring infinity and universal truth within the format of children’s animation. How well it works is a matter of debate better left to those better versed in philosophical matters than I; but there is little denying that, even now, over four decades later, with the boundaries of animation pushed much farther than once they were, there are still very few—if any—films quite like this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious mishmash overall, well animated yet not entirely satisfying, whether you have read the book or not. The sense that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface lingers, however, a need to find meaning in it all.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: METROPIA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Tarik Saleh

FEATURING: Voices of , , , ,

PLOT: The world’s oil supplies are drying up, and Europe is now connected by a network of underground railroads known as Metropia, where a young man named Roger begins to hear a voice in his head.

Still from Metropia (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The standard tale of dystopian grimness and corporate conspiracy is given a fresh twist via a esque art style, shampoo-based mind control, and rejected asylum seekers launched away in rocket chairs.

COMMNETS: I’m told that director Tarik Saleh’s most recent feature outing—The Nile Hilton Incident, set in revolutionary Egypt—was a stellar piece of neo-noir crime drama. I personally avoided it, since modern politics gives me a migraine, but it had enough impact to net Saleh a directing gig on the acclaimed “Westworld” series.

When Metropia came out, though, Saleh was still largely an unknown; and fittingly, the film—despite clearly being intended for an international audience—made little impact either inside or outside Scandinavia; after all, by 2009, neither dystopian tales, nor animated films aimed at adults quite carried the novelty they once did.

But in many ways, Metropia seems quite well-aware of this. Really, perhaps that’s one of the best things that can be said about this film; it never tries to be more than it is. It isn’t under the illusion that the tale it tells of resource depletion, corporate conspiracy, and a bleak, excessively urbanized future is especially new; as a result, it makes an effort to avoid jamming its finger into the viewer’s chest the way some such films might do. To be sure, the grimness of the world that mankind has created for himself is still very much evoked—a half-crazed man in the subway soapboxes about the days when seasons still existed, and Juliette Lewis’s character laments how every city looks identical nowadays—but for the most part, the film clearly assumes that, by now, you’re familiar with the sort of desolate and drained world that humanity is rapidly heading toward, and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out in excessive detail.

Instead, the plot concerns itself chiefly with two things. The first is an elaborate conspiracy, implemented by the owners of the metro, Trexx, to read and control the minds of the European public via a leading brand of dandruff shampoo. The second is a standard love triangle.

The conspiracy plotline might be lacking in certain aspects. It follows a tried and tested structure, and, at the film’s climax, is brought down a little too easily. Nonetheless, the film seems conscious of this flaw, opting to evoke this familiar tale of corporate conspiracy in an unpretentious manner that focuses on its impact upon a single isolated individual, while portraying it in a quietly tongue-in-cheek manner (to reiterate: the mind-control is accomplished by the use of dandruff shampoo).

Of course, there are points when the comedic undertone is overemphasized (most notably in a brief, almost cartoon-like sequence, largely unrelated to anything else in the film, where the protagonist watches a live game show where rejected asylum seekers are launched off a bridge from spring chairs). But even in those moments, the delivery is deadpan enough for the film to retain its general sense of grounded self-awareness.

The love triangle, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything new with the formula, and the film, seemingly aware of this as well, doesn’t provide it much in the way of either attention or screentime. The subplot does offer a decent means of giving the protagonist a stake in the world, and a reason to hurry home from his clandestine investigations.

But as many guess before even watching it, the film’s defining characteristic is its singular animation. Through an unusual blend of CGI and motion capture, the characters, with their outsized heads, uncanny faces, and strangely puppet-like gait, evoke a digitized form of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation style, with the characters bringing to mind sombre and gloomy bobbleheads. It’s unique, to be sure, and not in a way that feels gimmicky. It suggests a strangely harmonious meeting between the comically exaggerated and the grimly realistic, which fits with the film’s tone of cynical social commentary undercut by tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Considered in terms of its individual parts, Metropia might be mistaken for nothing special. It’s a fairly standard conspiracy thriller, in a fairly standard dystopian setting, in an unusual animation style. But taken together, these aspects create a film that, while perhaps not ground-breaking, is refreshingly self-aware in its approach to a familiar tale, telling it in a way that delicately spices up this grounded and grim tale of a dark future with an overlay of surreal, deadpan humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAREBITO (2004)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: , Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara

PLOT: A reclusive photographer obsessed with fear discovers a network of underground tunnels beneath Tokyo, where he finds a mute young woman who feeds on blood.

Still from Marebito (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This slow-burn horror almost entirely eschews conventional horror narrative structure to serve as a character study of its eccentric, delusional protagonist.

COMMENTS: I still remember the J-Horror craze of the early 2000s—though, living in a mostly third-world country, I had to largely settle for experiencing them through their American remakes.

Thinking back, it really was a perfect way to bring Asian media to the Western world: films like Ringu or Ju-On or One Missed Call, with their foreign settings and basis in regional mythology, were “exotic” enough to feel different from the standard Hollywood fare, but not so overly different or extreme as to feel alienating. Even some of the genre’s more extreme offerings, like Audition, tended to join Cannibal Holocaust and A Serbian Film among the ranks of “extreme films that everyone’s heard about.”

(Of course, that probably renders all those remakes pretty much pointless, but that’s a whole other matter.)

One exception to this was Marebito. Despite coming from the creator of the Ju-On series, as well as its highly successful American remake, Marebito made little impact in the West—perhaps best reflected by the fact that it never got a remake.

And viewing Marebito, it’s not hard to see why: even among the standards of J-Horror (which, around the time, usually went for the slow burn), Marebito takes its time. Many shots simply follow the protagonist as he absently wanders the streets, or stares obsessively at his collection of recordings; and the vampiric young woman at the center of the plot doesn’t even show up until the half-hour mark.

Good for atmosphere, and consistent with Shimizu’s usual approach, certainly; but not very marketable.

Nonetheless, for those who appreciate a horror film with character, Marebito has a fair amount to offer. It’s made clear relatively quickly that the focus of the film is not its fantastical elements, but the eccentric mind of its protagonist. Masuoka (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, best known around here as the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man) is a withdrawn and disenchanted individual with dark obsessions who is ever hidden behind his camera, relating to the world far better when seeing it through his viewfinder. And all of this is made sharply clear in the first few minutes of the movie, when we see him obsessively watching and re-watching footage that he shot of a public suicide on a subway, trying to discern what the dead man might have seen in his last few moments.

Masuoka is obsessed with the concept of fear, and seeks to uncover Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAREBITO (2004)

LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

AKA Paranoia 1.0 (DVD)

DIRECTED BY: Jeff Renfroe, Marteinn Thorsson

FEATURING: , , , Eugene Byrd,

PLOT: Computer programmer Simon J develops crippling paranoia, and a craving for branded milk, when he begins receiving a series of empty packages at his apartment.

Still from One Point O (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Telling the classic tale of corporate-owned dystopia through a low-budget lens mixing Kafka and noir, the film creates a uniquely arthouse-ian mashup out of familiar tropes.

COMMENTS: Jeff Renfroe (no connection, thankfully, to the trucker from that exploitation shock-fest The Bunny Game) is a director whose name is not likely to be widely recognized, but who, as the cutthroat movie industry goes, hasn’t done too badly for himself. Certainly, he’s been chiefly restricted to TV episodes, but they’re decent gigs: “Killjoys,” “Helix,” “Dominion,” and various other shows that, while crowd-pleasing in that way that modern television is obligated to be, are far from the worst that the medium has to offer.

Point is, I like to console myself about the negligible notice that Renfroe’s directorial debut got by telling myself that, judging by the path his career took, he must have at least impressed somebody relatively high up.

Paranoia 1.0—or One Point O, as it was called at its Sundance premier—follows Simon J, an isolated computer programmer struggling to meet his latest deadline. When a succession of empty packages begin mysteriously appearing in his apartment, Simon finds himself overwhelmed by a growing sense of crippling paranoia, and an insatiable craving for Nature Fresh brand milk.

Paranoia 1.0 draws its primary influences from film noir, Kafka, and philosophical science fiction. None of these are genres or styles I’m particularly familiar with; but I know enough to be able to tell that their combination here is a major part of what lends the film its particular atmosphere.

In the tradition of low-budget sci-fi, Paranoia 1.0 takes place in that weird historical limbo that exists only in films: contemporary fashions, computers and coding interfaces exist alongside rotary phones and vaguely Soviet architectural backdrops (the film was shot in Bucharest), while artificial intelligences, nanotechnology and VR games that are advanced even by today’s standards factor heavily into the plot.

There’s a myriad of reasons why one could argue that—in comparison with Hollywood’s tendency to invest in polished, lily-white backdrops that make the world of the future look like a gigantic Apple store—this rugged and piecemeal representation of the future comes across as more genuine. But in this case, the most relevant aspect of it is its timelessness, a timelessness that matches fittingly Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ONE POINT O (2004)

LIST CANDIDATE: PAPERHOUSE (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Bernard Rose

FEATURING: Charlotte Burke, Elliott Spiers, Glenne Headley, Ben Cross

PLOT: Bedridden from an illness, young Anna experiences recurring dreams of a house in a field—a house, she soon realizes, that changes corresponding to the drawings she makes.

Still from Paperhouse (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Applying an overlay of stark realism to the classic Wonderlandian formula of a child immersed in their own imagination, Paperhouse brings the essence of ’s classic tale of weirdness into the world of the lower-class, late-20th-century childhood, and makes it all the weirder for its dreariness.

COMMENTS: Four years before rising to international attention (and then abruptly falling out of it again) with the horror classic Candyman, director Bernard Rose would helm this loose adaptation of Catherine Storr’s children’s novel Marianne Dreams. Despite the high praise it received from Roger Ebert, the film flew largely under the international radar, and has yet to receive a DVD release outside Europe.

Drawing, like so many “weird” films before and after it, on a certain Alice in Wonderlandian spirit, the movie builds upon the versatile foundation of a child’s imagination, supplanting Carroll’s prim and privileged young Victorian with a rebellious young lower-classer whose world is London flats, government schools, and dysfunctional families. For all her premature cynicism, she yet clings to her childhood beliefs in fantasy, fairy tales, and happy endings.

As any child, and many adults, would naturally do, Anna attempts to escape her worldly concerns—which include an alcoholic father and a bout of fever—by retreating into her fantasies. But these dreams, we soon realize, are as tainted as the rest of her childhood, a fact communicated by the film’s distinctive set design. The titular paperhouse truly looks—in the most clinical sense—like what a child’s drawing of a house might look like if brought to life. It isn’t a pretty sight. Malformed and misshapen, Anna’s dream house is a hollow shell, empty of color, décor, architectural nuances, all those dull details a child would generally not concern herself with. As the woes of daily life continue to plague her, Anna’s attempts to draw some child-friendly charm into her paperhouse only transform it from dreary to sinister. An ice cream dispenser becomes a roaring, metallic industrial beast; an oversized Coke bottle seems sarcastically Warholian; and her attempts to draw her estranged father into the picture spawn a blind, raging monster.

From a filmmaking perspective, Paperhouse, despite (or, perhaps, because of) its limited budget, offers little to criticize. Rose’s direction is confident and purposeful; the set design is realized in a manner that wonderfully conveys the film’s central themes; Glenne Headley manages a convincing London accent; and Charlotte Burke and Elliott Spiers, despite their young ages, carry their leading roles with competence (though both of them, thankfully, had the good sense to get out of the film business before the ugly industry of child acting could consume them).

But perhaps the core of what makes Paperhouse so recommendable, and so weird, lies not in its technical execution, nor in its fantastical elements, but in its abnormal honesty. Looking past the “Alice” influences, we might see it as a more grounded prototype of such later films as Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls. Although she appreciates the draw of imagination and the appeal of escape into fantasy as much as the next child protagonist, Anna’s mind is far too preoccupied with, and jaded by, her worldly experiences to have time to conjure up elaborate, intricately detailed backdrops encrusted with CGI and Hollywood budgets. In this sense, the film might seem abnormally dreary for its subject matter; yet for that very reason it will also be, for many, far more relatable than similar works.

One can pick holes in anything, and there’s plenty that might be said about the notion that the romance between the two leads seems to happen for little reason other than that they’re a boy and a girl, or that the idealistic ending might jar with the rest of the movie’s more grounded tone. But as with the beloved tale of Alice, the plot is a secondary consideration to exploring the expanses (or in this case, the limitations) of a child’s imagination. Besides, one of the many things that Paperhouse does well is setting up a protagonist who deserves, at the very least, a happy ending.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… has the stark landscapes and the obsessively circling story lines of a dream – which is, of course, what it is….  wisely never attempts to provide a rational explanation for its story…”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)