On her 11th birthday, Anna (Charlotte Burke) begins to suffer at school from repeated bouts of unconsciousness which turn out to be the effect of mono (called “glandular fever” in the movie). In her dreaming/ unconscious state, a house which she had drawn becomes real. In the house she finds a boy named Marc (Elliott Spiers) who exists in real life and who also is a patient of Anna’s doctor (Gemma Jones), although he and Anna have never met. The dream world is at first just surreal, which is creepy enough; however, after Anna angrily marks out and then crumples the drawing, the dream becomes frightening, and soon, as she convalesces at home and her fever worsens, she finds herself unable to wake. Her father (Ben Cross), absent in her waking life, becomes a monster in her dream, and finally the dream is able to affect real life in the same way that Anna’s drawings were able to affect the dream world. And for double the fun, our old friend, horror movie ambiguity, strikes again at the end.
Paperhouse is a mix of horror, fantasy, and art, with metaphors that are easy to see but no less effective for their obviousness. The film deals with the fear that a child deals with during a grave illness and the anger she feels because her father is away on business most of the time. Also, the dream world and its terrors symbolize the age when a child begins to have fluctuating hormones which cause mood swings and confusion. Anna is not a child anymore completely, yet she isn’t fully into puberty either, and her best friend at school (Sarah Newbold) is maturing more quickly. It is an uneasy time in most people’s lives, not only for the child but for the parents, and Glenne Headly as Anna’s mom sells her role as the stressed out parent dealing with Anna alone. Anna’s school is an overcrowded, dingy place, so one can understand her need to draw herself away from it, and I felt myself transported by the film to that time in my life, i.e. middle school, when school and home seemed equally unappealing.
Heck, this film could be even more symbolic, for all I know; perhaps it is a comment on the defacto breakup of families due to job scarcity at the time in London. Was that an issue in the UK of 1988? Certainly the dad’s trouble with alcohol is alluded to. It could even be a retort against film censorship of the time in the form of an extremely dark picture free from violence or sex. A video nice-ty, if you will.
I can remember when Paperhouse was on the shelves at every video store. Now it has become a somewhat rare film in the US. I believe it suffered from inaccurate marketing from the video distribution company: the box had a blurb comparing Paperhouse to Nightmare on Elm Street, which is a very inaccurate comparison aside from the fact that both movies deal with dreams that become too real. However, Paperhouse, although not as frightening as NOES, in some ways is a deeper film. It is also a rare horror film in that it not only focuses on children, but it also seems to be directed at them. It is much closer to The Gate than to NOES.
Glenne Headly and Gemma Jones are great as always, and Ben Cross elevates any movie that he is in, but the two child actors, Burke and Spiers, do carry the film. The casting of Burke is particularly effective in my opinion because she looks and acts like an average, awkward pre-teen rather than a precious, precocious movie darling. It is unfortunate that Paperhouse was her only film. But the real star here is Spiers, who brings a poignancy to the sickly and sensitive Marc. Watching him now seems even more raw knowing that he committed suicide in 1994, and it is sad that what might have been a fine acting career was cut so short. Still, if these two were only to be remembered for one film, this is a worthy one to be remembered for.