One of the eighties’ forgotten gems is the fantasy-horror hybrid, Paperhouse (1988), a British release that did its best to compete with flicks like Heathers for Cineplex space, and failed. U.S. gross, according to the internet movie database, was just over $241 thousand. Sad. Paperhouse deserved better, much better.
Spoiler-free, the plot follows Brit tween Anna, curious about lipstick but not yet ready for boys, as she succumbs to a severe case of glandular fever. The disease leaves her prone to vivid dreams, all of which stem from Anna’s crayon drawing of a bleak, lonely house. Whatever Anna adds to the house manifests itself in her dreams, and what starts out as a bit of a lark (think Harold and the Purple Crayon) quickly turns sour. Hardly twenty minutes in and it becomes clear that Anna may well have planted (or drawn) the seeds of her own destruction.
Having just read Violette Malan’s piece on John Gardner (On Moral Fiction) right here at Black Gate not a week before sitting down to re-watch Paperhouse, I couldn’t help but be struck by the film’s parallels to Gardner’s own arguments in favor of “moral” art and criticism. But what Gardner posits in his book he pursues by Socratic argument, in essay form; Paperhouse cleverly crafts those same questions into a cohesive dramatic whole.
Yes, the movie can be enjoyed on a purely surface level, without ever ceding the floor to philosophy, but make no mistake, this little chiller has a great deal more on its mind than things that go bump in the night, which is why it holds up so well, twenty-five years on.
Aside from the horror trappings — sudden movements, creaking doors, shadowy figures stalking closer and armed with hammers — Paperhouse asks the sneaky, diabolical question, does bad art lead to bad outcomes?
When Anna draws something pleasant, like a bicycle, she gets it (more or less), but when she adds a frown to a figure in her drawing, she gets that, too: a character in her dream who is morose or furious, depending.
Worse luck for her, Anna’s eraser won’t function, so her only course is to “draw better” — in essence, to make better art.
Art for Paperhouse, even simple pencil drawings by an ill little girl, is vital stuff with significant consequences. Just as Anna can save her dream-self through her art (and save, too, her dream-companion, a crippled boy named Marc), art is the beacon that might save or at least salvage wakeful, real-world Anna.
By keeping its dramatic focus squarely on Anna, and by making it increasingly clear that her fever could kill, Paperhouse drives home one emotional stake after another.
Anna’s plight resonates because she’s in danger not in one world but in two, simultaneously, and either one could prove lethal.
The film’s secret weapon stems from art of another order, music. Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer collaborated to create the score, a fabulously effective blend of Bernard Hermann-style shocks, rich symphonic swells, and nervy electronica that recalls Tangerine Dream. All three blend seamlessly with two movements lifted from one of the classical canon’s most gorgeous works, Faure’s Requiem, used here to heart-wrenching effect.
Charlotte Burke, who played Anna, never made another film. Co-star Elliot Spiers, playing Marc, died young. Director Bernard Rose has struggled to find a hit, despite moderate successes like Candyman (1992) and Immortal Beloved (1994).
In 2013, he released The Devil’s Violinist, which so far as this writer can tell, went straight to DVD in the U.S.
Paperhouse, then, stands as regrettable proof that the cream does not always rise to the top. In fact, Paperhouse is now so obscure that I was unable to obtain it through Netflix or my (excellent) local library.
I could order it from Amazon, yes, but with the quaint proviso that I’ll accept it on VHS! The advent of DVDs is now some twenty-plus years in the past, yet Paperhouse remains adrift on the sidelines. (Weirdly, this echoes the film’s debatable but unquestionably emotional climax.)
In the end, I was forced to screen Paperhouse on the pixilated paradise of Youtube. As Edmund O’Brien says in The Wild Bunch, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”
‘Til next time.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of ”The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear” and Check-Out Time, forthcoming in 2014.