Tag Archives: British

CAPSULE: THE SHOUT (1978)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jerzy Skolimowski

FEATURING: Alan Bates, Susannah York, ,

PLOT: A stranger wanders into the lives of a British composer and his wife, demonstrating powerful magic he learned from Aborigines in Australia as he torments the man and takes his wife hostage.

The Shout (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like many British horror tales of the 1970s, The Shout flirts with weirdness at every other step, but in the end we have to reluctantly conclude that it only gets as weird as necessary to tell its unconventional tale. Tim Curry, the man who gave the world Dr. Frankenfurter and its most memorable Pennywise, sits here in a sweater, as passive and conservative as a judge—making that two weirder movies you’ve seen Tim Curry in right there.

COMMENTS: Robert Graves (Tim Curry) visits the grounds of a mental hospital to referee a cricket match, when the Chief Medical Officer introduces him to Charles Crossley (Alan Bates). Crossley tells Graves the story of (another?) man named Crossley, who possesses a strange, magical power. Crossley invades the lives of a local composer and sound engineer and his wife, Anthony and Rachael Fielding (John Hurt and Susannah York). Anthony Fielding is now a patient at said hospital, and Crossley tells his tragic tale.

It turns out Crossley is a world-weary traveler who spent eighteen years in the Australian Outback, where he communed with Aborigine natives and learned their most powerful magic. Crossley, helping himself to the Fielding household, regales them with tales of his adventures punctuated by such shocking claims as having sired, then murdered, his children. But he has many more surprises, as he demonstrates with an Aborigine spell called “the shout,” which has the power to knock all who hear it stone dead. Crossley, an intimidating alpha male pulling primate rank on the too-polite couple, soon employs his dark magic to shatter their marriage. The couple are clearly no match for Crossley, who toys with them like a cat pawing at mice, for about the same reasons.

The story from there on out gets a little muddled, since it’s largely told with symbolism, atmosphere, and cut-in scenes which may be flashbacks or flash-forwards. Anthony is more Foley sound engineer than musician, and we’re treated to several scenes where he manipulates objects to produce bizarre sounds for recording in his studio. These scenes and their sounds punctuate the story. Another scene shows the couple asleep in their bed, while their sorcerer visitor appears in the mirror over their bed. Anthony wakes up and looks around, but doesn’t see Crossley. Was he there and disappeared, does he have the power to blank Anthony’s mind, or was Crossley only suggested in the mirror or perhaps even Anthony’s dream? The cumulative effect of all this muddling about is a film which is not like a conventional narrative, but instead like the memories as a real human brain, faulty and prone to distraction, would remember them. The pacing may be low-gear at times, but thanks to the excellent direction and hypnotizing performances, we’re too entranced by every detail to notice the time.

Lovingly shot in the British countryside of Devon, the film feels like a dreamy faerie tale in the old-fashioned Grimm style, with lots of Freudian subtext and horrors coming out of the sexual closet rather than from under the bed. Mr. Fielding is just about the victim of cuckoldry, overpowered and exiled from his own home by a master of dark forces. Early on, Mrs. Fielding finds a large bone in the sand and quickly buries it before her husband can see it, and there’s your symbolic foreshadowing. At the same time, we have the classic “unreliable narrator” puzzle. The story is told to us from inside an insane asylum: we are left to wonder how much is true, how much is a delusion, and how much is simply a lie. Perhaps this is nothing but a fanciful exaggeration of a cheating-wife story? The shifting structure of the film, given to us in layers and flashbacks, doesn’t help us settle our minds about it, but does mirror the presumed mental state of the characters. A widely-praised film of its time, which won Jury’s Grand Prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, The Shout deserves a second look by any British horror fan looking for a peer to The Wicker Man or Don’t Look Now.

The Shout was formerly available on video-on-demand but those contracts seem to have expired. It’s currently only available on British import DVD or Blu-ray so Americans will need an all-region player.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Robert Graves’s weird story becomes a weird movie…”–Adrian Turner, Radio Times

(This movie was nominated for review by reader jason slicker, who called it a “very creepy atmospheric cool piece of film.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SKELETONS (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Whitfield

FEATURING: Ed Gaughan, Andrew Buckley, Tuppence Middleton, Paprika Steen, Jason Isaacs

PLOT: Two psychic investigators—memory extractors who literally find “skeletons in the closet”—investigate a missing person case at the request of an eccentric family.

Still from Skeletons (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Skeletons is sort of a whimsical corporate memory scenario, with a dash of humor, on an obvious low budget. Its ambition makes you want to root for it, but the end result is so minor that it ultimately doesn’t leave a lasting impression.

COMMENTS: Naturally gifted but troubled Davis and big-boned Bennett, the more stable of the team, are a pair of—psychic exorcists? Through a combination of technology and mental gymnastics, they are able to enter into people’s memories (entering via their home closets) and discover their secrets. The rules to this procedure are never clearly laid out. We stumble upon certain concepts in the course of the investigation, which is generally a good way to introduce information while keeping up the suspense, but here the technique is sometimes clumsy. (Why the necessity to build a “bypass” around the family’s homestead after the “triangulation fails,” except to buy the script more time to explore a parallel plot development?) At other times, the procedure’s dodgy mechanics lead to amusingly absurd results: “glow chase” too often, and you might end up “going Bulgarian.” One of the strangest things about the premise, which was never explained to my satisfaction, is who exactly the market is for these services. It appears to be couples who are afraid to tell each other their deepest secrets and require professional interventions, New Age dilettantes, and skeptics who end up embarrassed by the revelations; not much of a customer base, in my opinion. Although it’s presented as an unusual assignment, the idea of the two being sent on a missing persons case makes more sense—perhaps their objective perspective will allow them to find a clue in someone’s memory that person would miss. In fact, the movie might work best as the pilot episode for a weekly psychic mystery series that never happened.

Gaughan and Butler, veterans of British television, show good comic timing and chemistry. Each shows a mixture of loyalty to, and exasperation with, the other that makes their long-term partnership believable. They spend their long walks (for budgetary reasons, I guess, no one in their organization owns a car) discussing whether Rasputin was morally admirable. Bennet is concerned about Gaughan’s lifestyle and covers for him, but that doesn’t stop the pair from bickering on the job. The supporting characters do their jobs well: Paprika Steen as the quirky possible widow/potential love interest, Jason Isaacs as the bullying boss. The oddly-named Tuppence Middleton is the weakest link, if only because her suspiciously mute character often plays like more of a plot device than an organic presence. The comedy works, at least in spurts, at its funniest when Gaughan reads off his bureaucratic checklist (“have you ever seen a bear?”) and makes sure clients dot their i’s when signing forms (“yeah, but can you verbally confirm it?”) All in all, Skeletons is an amiable, reasonably witty indie that can’t quite figure out how to efficiently get its multitude of ideas across to the audience, resulting in a near-miss at cult status.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an intriguing, well-acted, quietly funny film that, though it is outright weird most of the time and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, has a quirky charm and emotional heart all its own.”–Owen Van Spall, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “D-2.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

RecommendedWeirdest!

“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for: everything.”—Friend, A Field in England

“So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.”

Gary Snider, “The Wild Mushroom”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, , Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.

Still from A Field in England (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
  • The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
  • No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
  • On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
  • A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
  • The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
  • Giles EdwardsStaff Pick for the Certified Weird List.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.


Original U.K. trailer for A Field in England

COMMENTS: We hear a man running breathlessly and see a wild Continue reading 320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

“The great majority of symbols in the dream are sex symbols.”–Sigmund Freud, “Symbolism in the Dream,” A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Micha Bergese, Tusse Silberg,

PLOT: An adolescent girl lies in her bed, dreaming feverishly. In her dream, she lives in a medieval town menaced by wolves, with a grandmother who tells her frightful stories about werewolves and warns her to “stay on the path.” One day, she is traveling through the woods to her grandmother’s house, and she meets a dashing older man on the road…

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on Angela Carter’s three “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired werewolf stories collected in “The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories.” In 1980 Carter adapted these stories into a radio play titled “The Company of Wolves,” which became the basis for her screenplay collaboration with director Neil Jordan. She published her version of the screenplay, which differs slightly from the filmed version (due to the fact that some sequences proved too costly to shoot) in the collection “The Curious Room.”
  • Jordan says that the stories-within-stories structure was inspired by The Saragossa Manuscript (1965).
  • Other than the wraparound sequences, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie where men (repeatedly) turn into wolves, it’s surprising that the most startling image occurs in a quiet moment. Rosaleen climbs a tree, finds a stork’s nest, and finds a mirror and a vial of lipstick nestled alongside the eggs. She applies the lipstick, looks in the mirror, and the eggs crack open to reveal tiny human figurines.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Egg babies; wolves at a wedding; Angela Lansbury’s ceramic head

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An adolescent girl is lost in a fever dream inhabited by suave beast men and mysterious symbols that both frighten and thrill her. Angela Carter’s Freudian spin on fairy tales takes the sanitized version of Little Red Riding Hood and gives it fangs.

Original trailer for The Company of Wolves

COMMENTS: Werewolves are some of humanity’s oldest supernatural foils, mentioned in Petronius’ “Satyricon” in the first century Continue reading 319. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT: “Episode Two” picks up some time after the events of the first film, with a previously unmentioned spare Emily clone seeking out the original Emily Prime. This “back-up copy” clone, recognized only by a 6 on her forehead, travels back through time to capture Emily Prime’s memories, as she will never receive third generation Emily’s memories due the Earth having exploded, thus destroying Emily’s bloodline. Confused? As with the wealth of ideas in the first episode, there is a lot to digest here.

Still from World of Tomorrow 2: The Burden of Other People's Dreams (2017)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The original “World of Tomorrow” remains a long shot due to its short running length, and this sequel only improves on that aspect by about five minutes. It is equal, but not superior, to the quality of the first episode, and as a result will not be a List contender.

COMMENTS: The first “World of Tomorrow” arose from a series of audio recordings of Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae, then four years old, rearranged to form a script. The recordings for the sequel were made when Mae was five, and the dialogue was considerably more difficult to sculpt into a coherent work: “It turns out that writing a story around the unscripted audio of a four-year-old is pretty easy compared to writing around the unscripted audio of a five-year-old. Where once I had short and expressive reactions that could be gracefully edited, suddenly I was facing down long, rambling monologues from a small crazy person.” Difficult or no, Hertzfeldt has crafted another elegant and irreverently funny work here that captures much of the same resignation and melancholy of the first, while narrowing the focus of the narrative.

Where the first short took us to robot mining colonies and museums where living clones aged on display, here Hertzfeldt limits our gaze primarily to back-up clone “6’s” experiences. We see the distant planet where 6 grew up, and the friendship she formed with back-up clone 5, called “Felecia” to discriminate her from other Emily clones. Together Emily Prime and 6 explore 6’s mind and memories. A particularly poignant moment comes when Prime discovers a shining thing in a stream, which 6 identifies as “a glimmer of hope,” something that has become much rarer in 6’s mind. 6 informs Prime that her mind used to be young and idealistic like Prime’s, but then 6 grew up and she hasn’t “seen a new glimmer of hope… in many years.” Scenes like these conjure up the wistfulness for childhood that characterized much of the first film, that yearning for dreams that went unrealized, marred by the disappointments of adult life.

The disconnect between Prime and her clone’s perceptions of the same moment greatly informed the comedy in the first film, and this element returns in the sequel. Prime doesn’t understand the significance of much of what 6 describes, and her innocent, childish reactions are often hilarious. When 6 plaintively asks Prime if she recognizes the planet where Felecia is exiled, Prime innocently suggests it might be “near Kitty land?” before offering other imaginative possibilities. In between these moments of disconnect, Hertzfeldt expertly weaves affecting dialogue (“The closer I look at things, the less I know”) as characters move across a backdrop of digitally conjured imagery. This feast of kinetic eye candy takes the form of swirling, nebulous particles, replacing the geometric patterns of the first episode.

Does Hertzfeldt’s description of a difficult second birth translate to the film emerging as a flawed outing? No, there are no major sequel shortcomings here: “The Burden of Other People’s Dreams” captures the tone and aesthetic of the first, pushing them in a slightly different, more specific direction. Perhaps narratively it is less than the first film’s full course meal (the glimpses of the larger world and story sidelines are missed), but ultimately “Episode Two” is even more intimate and affecting due to its limited scope. Without distractions from her story, we come to genuinely feel for 6, so that when the film reaches its climax and her current consciousness dissolves and Prime fulfills 6’s childhood hopes, we are moved on the same level as we would watching a live action film. The emotive power of Hertzfeldt’s films continues to be the strongest element of his uncompromising, independent oeuvre.

“World of Tomorrow, Episode Two” is available exclusively on Vimeo on Demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If ‘World of Tomorrow’ was a journey outwards to the furthest reaches of thought, ‘World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts’ is an epic voyage inward, a dizzying spin down the rabbit hole of the human subconscious.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Deborah Fallender, Max Wall, John LeMesurier, Harry Corbett

PLOT: Disowned by his father, young Dennis Cooper travels to the big city; through circumstances circuitous and deeds unintentional, he saves the kingdom from the monstrous Jabberwocky.

Still from Jabberwocky (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Long-time stalwart of the strange Terry Gilliam was just getting on his own feet with this, his first solo outing as a director. That said, there are a number of oddball moments, characters, and set-pieces; however, Jabberwocky is more on the straightforward side of things—with spikes of silliness—-than it is an Out-of-Left-Field-Terry-What-Are-You-Doing? spectacular.

COMMENTS: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In the case of Dennis, the mind-blowingly unlikely hero of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, “greatness” clings like a limpet to the rotting potato our hero carries religiously throughout the movie. After an unpleasant experience co-directing with ‘s for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam seems to enjoy his newfound freedom to chaotically putter through a movie that, although occasionally uneven, brims with life in every scene.

A menace lurks in the forests and farmlands, viciously devouring victims before spitting out their skeletal corpses. What brave hero will save the good folk of the kingdom? Why, none other than Dennis (Michael Palin), a bewildered little man obsessed with stock-taking and other trappings of commerce. When his father, a venerable craftsman, casts him from his home, Dennis travels to the capital city to find his fortune so that he might be worthy of the hand of the piggish and unseemly daughter of Mr. Fishfinger, a seller of fish (!) who is, along with the merchants and clergy of the besieged city, keen to see that the rampaging monster keeps the swarms of peasants captured in its walls. Dennis woos the kingdom’s dotty princess (Deborah Fallender), pursues the fearsome Jabberwocky, and reluctantly endures a happy ending.

Not quite modulating his animator sensibilities, Terry Gilliam effectively makes a long-form, live-action version of the cartoons that brought him fame with the Python comedy troupe. The grittiness of medieval life is on full and absurd display as Dennis has run-ins with fanatical penitents, encounters a smilingly self-dismembering beggar, and is ushered around the chaotic city milieu by the director’s smirking machinations. Standing out amongst this cartoonery is a scene where a hungry Dennis pursues a rogue turnip first dropped by a merchant, then batted about by a series of passersby. Jabberwocky bears witness to the silly side of the Dark Ages’ dirtiness. (Indeed, one’s suspicion of ‘toonish buffoonery is confirmed by Terry Gilliam in the movie’s commentary).

No, Jabberwocky isn’t terribly weird. There is too much of a smiling sensibility lying atop, below, and at the surface for any disorientation. And no, Jabberwocky is no landmark directorial debut, but more a qualifying lap for Gilliam’s subsequent projects. A cast of characters who knows no other life and comically shrugs off all adversity undercut the despair of starvation and filth. The end result feels like “Tom & Jerry’s” Hard to be a God. Gilliam would go on to make weird and wonderful movies where his hero’s unlimited humanity blasts through a wall of farcical nihilism; with Jabberwocky, we still see a giggles-take-all attitude from the legendary filmmaker.

DVD INFO: Criterion provides, again, pleasant run-of-the-mill thoroughness. Lifting the charming commentary from the previous 2001 DVD release, they add a contemporary interview-documentary involving Gilliam, Palin, and others (all of whom, separately, go on pleasant tangents about the symbolism of potatoes), as well as a more in-depth bit with the film’s beastie designer, Valerie Charlton. Toss in a few odds-and-ends like the (bizarre) trailer, an audio interview from the late ’90s with  cinematographer Terry Bedford, and the obligatory fold-out essay in the disc case and you’ve got yourself a special release. And, oh yeah, the glorious images of this glorious movie have been upgraded and cleaned up for glorious “4K Blu-ray”. Huttah.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gilliam’s monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs. It still offers some genuine chills, together with a jarring sense of otherness that has become a feature of his work, a perfect complement to Lewis Carrol’s surreal poetry.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

“There are a lot of strange men practicing medicine these days.”–The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT: Dr. Phibes is an underground aristocrat who has sworn a campaign of revenge against the doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. In his downtime, he listens to his automaton orchestra in his bizarre Art Deco lair and stages dance numbers with his beautiful mute assistant. A series of gruesome and bizarre murders, themed after Egyptian biblical plagues, attracts the attention of Scotland Yard, who strive to put together the puzzle and stop Phibes.

still from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • The ten Biblical plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus 7-12 were (in order) blood, frogs, gnats (or lice), flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn. Phibes replaces gnats and flies with bats and rats.
  • Phibes screenwriter William Goldstein (not to be confused with the more famous William Goldman) has just three screenwriting credits on his IMDB page: this movie, this movie’s misbegotten sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), about a team of dogs trained to thwart an armored car heist. His short, yet quirky, career also includes a series of self-published sequels to Phibes.
  • The initial movie poster was a collage of bad judgments. It spoils Dr. Phibes’ disfigured face, which was supposed to be a surprise near the ending; it implies a romance between Phibes and his assistant Vulnavia that never happens; and the tagline “Love means never having to say you’re ugly,” a parody of 1970‘s Love Story, set up audiences to expect a romantic comedy—to their doubtless bewilderment.
  • Phibes fits the description of the rarely appreciated genre known as Diesel Punk. It’s set in the early decades of the 20th century and features a highly speculative series of plot devices involving technology that would at least have been cutting edge for the time. It’s also a museum of Art Deco styles.
  • In this pre-CGI year of 1971, some of the scenes involving animals don’t come off too well. The bats scene was done with harmless fruit bats, who adorably cuddle up on the victim’s bed while they’re supposed to be menacing. The later rats in the cockpit were equally unconvincing as a threat.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We give the obligatory disclaimer that we have a multitude of scenes to choose from. Of all the elaborate deaths, the amphibian death mask stands tall as the signature moment. One of Dr. Phibes’ victims attends a costume party with a frog’s head mask supplied by Phibes himself. The mask is designed to slowly crush the victim’s head. As Dr. Hargraves falls downstairs and the mask squeezes the last drops of blood from his head, the party music plays on and a crowd of animal-headed guests look down. The scene strikes the perfect note between the grotesque and the campy, and upon that note the theme of this movie plays.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Animatronic swing band; unicorn impalement; Brussels sprout locust bait.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dr. Phibes is the character Vincent Price was born to play. What more need we say? Ten times larger than life, Dr. Phibes is a dish of ham and cheese, a pulp villain sprung whole from the pages of vintage horror comics. The elaborate murder plots of his bent imagination fit perfectly into this film’s campy Art Deco/diesel-punk universe like a rare sapphire on a Faberge egg.

Original trailer for The Abominable Dr. Phibes

COMMENTS: The Abominable Dr. Phibes opens with our title character (Vincent Price) rising from the floor on a mobile pipe organ, Continue reading 307. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

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)