Tag Archives: 1988

CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME (1988)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Jittlov

FEATURING: Mike Jittlov, Richard Kaye, Paige Moore

PLOT: Aspiring filmmaker Mike Jittlov makes a wondrous, delightful short film that catches the eye of Hollywood producers; they enlist him to make a feature containing the same formula of special effects magic and raucous whimsy, but sinister forces conspire to prevent Jittlov from realizing his dream.

Still from Wizard of Speed and Time

COMMENTS: Moviemaking is a cutthroat business, you know. Maybe you got a hint of that from a film like The Player. Or possibly  Barton Fink. Could have been The Big Picture. Or perhaps State and Main. Come to think of it, it might’ve been Living in Oblivion. Or Bowfinger or Hollywood Shuffle or My Life’s In Turnaround or In the Soup or …And God Spoke or any number of films where Hollywood takes a look in the mirror to catch a glimpse of the laborious and fraught process of trying to get a movie made. When filmmakers are instructed to write what they know, there are plenty who do exactly that.

Well, you can add Jittlov’s sole feature to that list, with the twist that what he knows is how to make lively low-budget special effects. In 1979, he created a short film exploiting his editing and stop-motion photography skills. As these things often do, the short became Jittlov’s calling card, a golden ticket into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. That turns out to be the starting point for this feature-length exploration of his journey into the heart of the moviemaking beast. And when it comes to “writing what you know,” Jittlow keeps his focus squarely on what he’s good at: special effects. The result is… almost exactly what you’d expect.

On the one hand, anyone who manages to assemble a feature film, particularly without the aid of a well-heeled studio, has undertaken a major achievement. On the other hand, Jittlov’s production is laden with the self-awareness of this achievement, and practically demands to be recognized for its own bravery and pluckiness. To call it self-indulgent is a ground-shaking level of understatement. Self-indulgence is the point; the message seems to be, “Everybody deserves a piece of this genius.”

For a zany comedy, The Wizard of Speed and Time is notably angry. One subplot of the film is Jittlov’s ongoing battle against moviemaking’s gatekeepers. Studio indifference, greedy vendors, apathetic accountants, zealous cops, guild oppressiveness (boy howdy, does this movie hate unions), gawking tourists, and general grownup shallowness are just a few of the forces lined up against the filmmaker’s pure and simple goal to make jolly little movies. Atlas Shrugged wishes its heroes and villains were drawn as starkly as this.

So this movie stands as Jittlov’s demonstration of what the Magic Store could be like if there wasn’t so much red tape and cynicism in the business. That being the case, let’s hear it for the bad guys, because The Wizard of Space and Time is exhausting. Determined to pile on the charm, it never lets up. Every jokey moment is slammed up against another jokey moment, with irony-laden captions, a music score taken directly from a theme park, undercranked footage, goofy sound effects, and so much post-production audio looping to guide you along the way. It’s so breathlessly insistent, it makes Airplane! look like a film.

The Wizard of Speed and Time is undeniably weird (or, as the movie itself jokes, “WHOLLY ODD”), but it’s so invested in its zany iconoclasm that it’s impossible to enjoy on any terms if you’re not Mike Jittlov. The climax of the film features a complete re-creation of the original short. This is a smart move; it reminds the audience that there is something genuinely charming here. What Jittlov does with little money and a whole lot of imagination is quite remarkable. And probably best appreciated in a small dose.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Created by cult animator and weirdo Mike Jittlov, this 1988 hella-low-budget film follows a talented but jobless special effects wizard as he navigates Hollywood… Jittlov’s enthusiastic DIY production earned a generation of cult fans, who allege he slipped over 1000 subliminal messages into the film. Spooky.”–Chase Burns, The Stranger

(This movie was nominated for review by Marko. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: DREAM DEMON (1988)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Harley Cokeliss (as Harley Cokliss)

FEATURING: Jemma Redgrave, Kathleen Wilhoite, Mark Greenstreet, Timothy Spall, Jimmy Nail

PLOT: Diana is about to get married to a Falklands War hero, but starts suffering nightmares as the date of her nuptials approaches.

Still from Dream Demon (1988)

COMMENTS: Leading lady Jemma Redgrave is the niece of cinema’s heavy-hitting grand dame, Vanessa Redgrave. Nicolas Cage is the nephew of cinema’s heavy-hitting director Francis Ford Coppola. I bring up this semi-coincidence to allow me to raise the following point: a movie as overblown as Dream Demon would have done much better with an actor as overblown as Nicolas Cage. As it stands, Jemma Redgrave provides a capable performance as bride-to-be Diana, but her energy level is far too wan—perhaps I might say too “English”—for the blood-splattered, creepy-staircase-laden, hard-to-follow nightmare on screen. Redgrave hovers at a “proper” Four, when Dream Demon demands nothing short of a Cage-ian Eleven.

Had Harley Cokeliss (who co-wrote as well as directed) pursued the story he should have, that kind of quiet nuance might have been appropriate. He falls into the trap that ensnares horror writers and directors all too often, however: wanting to graft ill-thought-out scares onto dramas that could have been more interesting in their own right. Dream Demon, in its real world portions, touches on a lot of issues worth exploring: the bilious nature of the British press corps in the 1980s, the strange flag-waving jingoism of the Falklands War, the culture clash of Los Angeles and London society, the manifestations of childhood guilt, and the fears of human sexuality as expressed by the subconscious.

Instead, there are dreams within dreams (within dreams, and so on). These dreams, as the title suggests, are invariably nightmares—and Dream Demon opens with a real doozie. During a full-on, hyper-Anglican wedding—replete with far-flung family and officer chummies of the groom—Diana gets cold feet at the last possible moment and refuses to say “I do” at the vicar’s prompt. Furious with embarrassment, the groom (Mark Greenstreet, doing the best impression of David Bowie‘s ’80s hair-cut I’ve ever seen) slaps her; she slaps him back, and his head explodes. The blood-spattered bride walks back down the aisle and outside into the crowd of paparazzi. Alas, anyone who’s anyone knows that this opening is not to be–and we see the bride-to-be awakening in the arms of her fiancé who showers her with the standard “Everything’s all right!” platitudes.

So Dream Demon skirts around full-bore madness while also ignoring the many issues it raises with its colorful cast of characters. (I wish to take a moment for a special shout-out to Timothy Spall; not for his performance within Diana’s dreams, but as the tremendous skeezeball photojournalist who at one point inquires, “[Your fiancé] murdered a lot of Argentinians. Does that turn you on?”) But overall, Dream Demon is an untidy mess of missed opportunities. If the craziness had been laid on as thick as the spoooooky sound cues, it might have been something.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sort of a serious attempt to deliver a new twist on the Nightmare on Elm Street formula with a dose of Hellraiser-style surrealism in its second half, this is a film that requires a bit of work to fully embrace but delivers plenty of atmosphere and some quirky little chills that nicely evoke the subtle but unsettling nature of very bad dreams.” -Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo-Digital [Blu-ray]

CAPSULE: EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Julien Temple

FEATURING: , Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayons, Jim Carrey, Charles Rocket

PLOT: Valerie discovers her fiancé is cheating on her, but finds her “Mister Right” when a trio of furry aliens crash land in her pool.

Still fromEarth Girls Are Easy ()

COMMENTS: Seeing as I’m on probation for recommending Apocrypha status for movie musicals, it was a dangerous decision to dive into Julien Temple’s cult classic, Earth Girls Are Easy. While I had my typical “so, this is weird…” reaction that I do with every musical I see, at least this time the environment wasn’t as off-kilter as a magnified downtown London; it was merely off kilter in a “Dear-God-1980s-Hollywood” kind of way. Temple’s film–which is really the brainchild of Julie Brown, the go-to Valley Girl  at that time–runs longer than it should with plenty of awkward moments of stupidity. That said, once it finds its footing it hovers within a stone’s throw of recommendable.

Earth Girls Are Easy does not begin with said Earth girls, but with the aliens who discover them. Mac (Jeff Goldblum), Wiploc (Jim Carrey), and Zeebo (Damon Wayons) are a crew of brightly colored, fur-covered aliens on a mission of… well, it’s not clarified, and it doesn’t matter. While Mac is in stasis, Wiploc and Zeebo are puttering around the ship looking for a transmission signal, preferably one transmitting an image of hot women. When one of them prompts the navigation system to go haywire, they crash on a nearby planet, right into Valerie’s pool. Because she’s recovering from a spat with her now-ex-fiancé (lovely ’80s-slimy Charles Rocket), and because this is a musical, the plot becomes an engine for getting her together with one of the extraterrestrials. Dance numbers, big hair, and lite satire ensue.

A number of factors scream, “This movie merits no further thought.” It’s an ’80s movie about the ’80s, so its humor is obvious; it’s a musical, so its plot is of tertiary concern; and it’s directed by a guy with a music video career, so though the film’s look is lively, it breaks no new ground. However, the presence of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis lifts Earth Girls up from dreck to the lofty designation of “fun.” Goldblum, in particular, gives Mac a nuance, and at times a pathos, that the subject material doesn’t remotely deserve. During a night on the town, after the aliens have absorbed countless television soundbites, Mac inquires of Valerie, “Are we limp and hard to handle?”, giving this query from an advertisement a sensitivity that well explains why he’s one of his generation’s greatest actors.

Geena Davis, who co-starred opposite Goldblum in Cronenberg’s haunting version of The Fly, rekindles that tragic romance in a bubblegum setting. Golblum and Davis are cute together, and have a real connection; though this is really the only thing to recommend about Earth Girls, it gives it enough gravity to be worthwhile.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Great, wacky-sexy title. Attractive, amiable cast, with Davis, Goldblum and pop singer-satirist Julie Brown. Promising concept, with three space creatures—very humanoid, very male, very horny—crash-landing in the swimming pool of a gorgeous woman who has just thrown her philandering boyfriend out of the house. So why is this movie about as much fun as a bowl of cold Spaghetti-O’s?” –People (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Paula. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEETLEJUICE (1988)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , , , , ,

PLOT: A milquetoast suburban couple find themselves dead and haunting their own house; when new tenants they can’t stand redecorate the place and prove themselves immune to haunting, they hire a “bio-exorcist.”

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The premise, following a couple of ghosts protagonists along their misadventures in the afterlife, is a good enough foundation, but could have been a ho-hum fantasy in different hands. It took this all-star crew to come up with a desert world populated by sand snakes, a brothel in model train scale, a dinner party becoming a Harry Belafonte singalong, and a million and one creepy/hilarious dead folk to round it up to an eye-popping experience. It’s the happiest movie about death ever made!

COMMENTS: Tim Burton has certainly provoked his share of discussion on our site. Had 366 Weird Movies been around when he started his career, he doubtless would have been keen to make our list. Don’t let him kid for you a minute: Tim Burton knows exactly what weird is. He has Danny Elfman around, he knows about Forbidden Zone. There’s no excuse. He also knows what money is, and the siren song of the almighty buck has proven a stronger lure than prestige as a true artiste and auteur of midnight movies. Hence has he ever aimed his output straight for the suburban outlet mall, right between Hallmark and Hot Topic, making sure he can be equally merchandised in both. It’s clear that his artistic muse struggles to insert weirdness into everything he does, but if the weirdness factor cuts into the box office factor, he’s not about to take a chance on leaving a single empty seat in that theater on opening weekend. He still sobs himself to sleep at night over the lost Happy Meal deal. His saving grace is that he got off a few riskier shots in his wild years before Hollywood tamed him.

Beetlejuice is definitely Tim Burton at his wildest. If you remove his name and the all-star crew from consideration and view Beetlejuice objectively as its own thing, it’s pretty jaw-dropping that it ever got made. It is the blackest of black comedy subjects, getting a laugh out of scenes like suicide cases showing off their slashed wrists. And how would you like to hang yourself, only to find out that in the afterlife you’re condemned to keep dangling from the same noose, which is running around on a track amid office cubicles, so you can deliver memos? And the daughter protagonist—who can see ghosts through her sheer magical goth pixie powers alone—writes her suicide note but ghosts talk her out of it because, basically, death sucks too, kid. And how about Juno, the social worker for our hapless couple, who chainsmokes and exhales through the slash in her throat, and yet the effect is so underplayed that you could blink and miss it?

I once griped about the Imagination Ceiling: writers who bring up supernatural characters with allegedly near-boundless powers, but then the writer can’t think of anything awesome enough for them to do to make it worth the while. Beetlejuice does the Imagination Ceiling right. It’s jam-packed with supernatural characters who warp reality with a thought, pulling off one crazy stunt after another. Beetlejuice, tasked with getting rid of an intruding couple, does so by turning himself into a carnival strong man mallet game topped by a malevolent merry-go-round, for no other reason than that’s the first idea that popped into his head. In the manic hour-and-a-half running time, we never get very much explained, but the fever-dream logic is internally consistent enough that it makes perfect sense for a guy to get munched by a sudden sandworm attack. Right after he got rammed in the foot by a toy car driven by an outraged hobbyist shrunken down and left for stranded in his own model town, of course.

The mortal characters would be hard pressed to match the supernatural ones, but they do a bang-up job regardless. From the impossibly prissy interior decorator turned medium to the hysterically neurotic sculptress who will eventually be held prisoner by one of her own creations, they match the dead half of the cast bonker for bonker. Nobody with more than two lines in this film is forgettable. Only now we can start talking about the cast and crew, a unique blend of quirky careers and offbeat talents. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis stand out by the magnitude of their vanilla Brad and Janet routine, lost in a different kind of Gothic funhouse. Winona Ryder plays the most Winona Rydery role of her career. Danny Elfman’s music is a haunted circus. And all I want is for Glenn Shadix to follow me around all day narrating every mundane thing I do in his dramatic purple ham voice, is that too much to ask?

Beetlejuice is Tim Burton’s weirdest movie, because it ranks four out of five bowls of sugary cereal on the Saturday Morning Cartoon scale of unfettered childhood imagination.

Warner Brothers re-released Beetlejuice in a collectible Blu-ray steelbook package in 2019, giving us the excuse we needed to finally review it. It has the original trailer and the three episodes of the “Beetlejuice” cartoon series that were included on the “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray, but doesn’t come with the isolated score or soundtrack CD bonus disc from that release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Right off the bat, the whole premise is fucking weird, and it just gets weirder with each subsequent single scene. People pull their faces off, heads are shrunk, sculptures come to life, eyeballs become fingers, massive worms eat people—it really is a nonstop barrage of ‘what the hell?’ How someone sat down and gave Tim Burton millions of dollars to make this is almost incomprehensible.”–Germaine Lussier, Gizmodo

CAPSULE: VAMPIROS SEXOS (1988) & MONDO WEIRDO (1990)

Vampiros Sexos AKA I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing

Mondo Weirdo AKA Jungfrau am Abgrund (Virgin on the Edge)

BewareWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Carl Andersen

FEATURING: Feli Schachinger, Carl Andersen (as “Zaphod Beeblebrox”) (Vampiros Sexos); Jessica Franco Manera (Mondo Weirdo)

PLOT: Vampiros Sexos has something to do with a space vampire trying to recover poisoned olive oil which turns teenagers into “zabbadoings”; in Mondo Weirdo, a sexually repressed young woman enters a world of nightmarish eroticism.

Still from Vampiros Sexos (1988)
Still from Vampiros Sexos (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even for a website that specializes in weird movies, Carl Andersen’s two ultra low-budget punk sex films are an acquired taste for specialized audiences. Most will want to stay far away, but others will eat it up… you know who you are.

COMMENTS: I’m sure Carl Andersen put a lot of work into Vampiros Sexos, but it plays like something slapped together over a drunken weekend (which is probably the exact aesthetic he was going for). The “plot” is a loose assembly of vampire tropes and silly jokes interrupted by long, explicit, polyamrous orgies. It’s presented in grimy black and white and often uses odd angles and shaky cameras, with scenes (deliberately) overlit or underlit so you can barely make out what’s going on. Sonically, it sometimes plays like a silent film (complete with intertitles that switch between English and German), and at other times like a  roughie with unsynced sound. Mostly, it plays like a long, explicit DIY music video, with the band Model D’oo supplying songs like “I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing” in a lo-fi, synth-and-drum heavy style trapped halfway between early 80s New Wave and industrial music. Sexos contains attempted slapstick, full-frontal zombies, stripping during the credits sequence, “The Three Psychedelic Stooges” (I never figured out what this referred to), vomiting, goofy gore, lots of scenes shot inside what looks like a cellar punk club, and a sexy lady with a shaved head. The sparse but occasionally amusing B-parody dialogue includes lines like “inside this vat is an undiscovered olive oil. I will now take it onto me to cook up some pretty lunch” and “I will show you my zombie bootie.” Anderson is fond of referencing his influences (or, more accurately, stuff he thinks is cool): “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Night of the Hunter, and . His actual stylistic influences are more like a combination of , , and Gerald Damiano. It’s not as much fun as it sounds.

Mondo Weirdo shows improvement, though if you caught it sans-Sexos you might think you were looking a first attempt at a student film (again, I suspect that’s exactly the aesthetic Andersen is going for). This time around the lighting is uniform, the camera is fluid rather than jerky, and there are more ambitious effects, like a triangularly split screen for a lesbian sex scene. Even Model Doo’s music has improved, becoming more ambient and soundtrack-like at times. The film begins with a vintage exploitation disclaimer, though one delivered in broken English, describing the upcoming attraction as “one of the most bizarre cases in history of distorted sexuality” and warning “should you seem to have problems to share this world of nightmare and bloodily cruel events, please leave the auditory [sic] now.” The opening finds attractive, waifish Odile menstruating (presumably for the first time) in the shower, then walking into a punk club where two girls are going at it hot and heavy around a stripper pole. She’s so scarred by the confluence of these two events that she spends the rest of the film walking around in a daze, giving blow jobs, slitting throats, mystically traveling through the bell of a saxophone, vomiting, licking blood, and engaging in split-screen lesbian sex. At one point a -style intertitle explains “elisabeth bathory invites odile to a strange dinner with strange people and very strange things are going on!” A doubling of characters puts me in mind of Meshes of the Afternoon, while the theme of a doomed, rebellious girl silently wandering through a haunted landscape makes Odile into a teen pornstar version of the Gamin from Dementia (1955). The graphic sex is still distracting and the desire to shock immature, however, and the overall product, while better than Sexos, is a bit boring, in the film school dropout way that the can make sex and violence boring.

Cult Epics label founder Nico B. named these movies to his top 10 weird movies list in 2015, calling Vampiros Sexos “a European punk rock hardcore sex vampire film, stylistic and trashy at the same time” and noting that Weirdo “surpasses the first one in obscenity.” He was so impressed he acquired the rights and released this three-disc set: a DVD of Sexos (transferred from VHS and presented with the short “What’s So Dirty About It?,” an experiment using the hardcore scenes from the feature edited into a strobing pattern), Mondo Weirdo on Blu-ray (with Andersen interviews as a bonus feature), and a CD of Model D’oo’s songs from both films.

Jessica Franco Manera is reportedly the daughter of prolific Eurosleaze director , to whom the film is dedicated (alongside ). It takes a special kind of man to dedicate a film to the father of the actress you’ve cast in a role requiring her to perform hardcore sex.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Mondo Weirdo]  is pretty insane stuff, not for the faint of heart… [Vampiros Sexos] makes even less sense than Mondo Weirdo… The two main attractions are essential viewing for fans of transgressive and outre cinema.”–Ian Jane, “Rock! Shop! Pop!”

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)