Paperhouse was the third film from British director Bernard Rose and was the first of Roses films to gain any kind of a widespread release. Rose subsequently went onto direct the acclaimed Clive Barker adaptation Candyman (1992) and then left for more classical subjects with the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved (1994) and Russian literature adaptations such as Anna Karenina (1997), Ivansxtc (2000) and The Kreutzer Sonata (2008). He did later return to the horror genre with Snuff Movie (2005) and the modernised Frankenstein (2015).
Paperhouse works through the strength and richness of its central idea. Bernard Rose does a fine job mapping this out. What makes Paperhouse worth watching is in the jumps back and forth between dream and reality and waiting to see what happens every time one of Annas drawings is translated into physicality. Roses best eye comes in capturing the twisted landscape and distorted designs of the interior of the dream house. The house is designed full of strikingly skewed perspectives, the way a child might draw it, and its progressive change from blankness to colour and then its occlusion by darkness is a vividly dramatic one.
Unfortunately, Bernard Rose has little affinity for action. I originally saw Paperhouse on the big screen at a film festival and realised that that was exactly the wrong place for it it is very much a film that has been intended for the small screen. All the characters are shot in closeups tv-style everyone says their piece into the camera and then Rose cuts to another person who dutifully says their line of dialogue and so on. This has a tendency to leave the characters bare and unfilled we rarely see them interacting with each other. The exception here is the fine performance from Charlotte Burke as Anna, which comes free of any of the cuteness that might have inhabited the role if Paperhouse had been an American production.
The only point that Paperhouse does not work is in a confusing ending, which makes little sense by the ground-rules the film has created for itself. The metaphor becomes lost we are never sure whether the boy is alive or dead, or whether the arrival at the lighthouse and improbable helicopter rescue is still in dream or the real world. It leaves an otherwise fine film going out on a note of confusion.
One major plus about the film is also the beautifully arty score, combining choral masses and eerie synth tonalities (even if this is used to create irritatingly unearned shock effects at times).