Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unsung!: Paperhouse

by JB
I will begin Scary Movie Month this year with a little-known film that may not even be a “scary movie” but seems to last an entire month.

There has been a place in my heart for Paperhouse (1988, Bernard Rose) ever since I first saw it. At that time, it was just what I was looking for in a horror film -- it had a requisite creepy quality that I could not shake for days. David Lynch films tend to have this same quality; they are so odd, unique and troubling that you just cannot get them out of your head. I have always preferred sublimated anxiety and a sense of underlying dread and terror over explicit displays of viscera. (That is why I married my wife.) I guess I like my horror in my brain, not in my belly.

For the past twenty years or more, Paperhouse has been very difficult to see. I do not think I ever owned the laserdisc. At one point I bought a used VHS copy on Ebay to loan to students; I loaned it to a student and never saw it again. I am now the “proud” owner of a DVD of questionable legality, purchased at Comic-Con, which I believe was ripped from a laserdisc due to the fact that the film is presented on a suspiciously home-made-looking menu as two separate 45-minute “chapters.”

I had not watched it for ages, so I was afraid I would experience the “Goonies Derivation:” when rewatching a treasured, old film does not live up to the original experience.  I dreaded what I might think of Paperhouse NOW.

That did not happen. I loved Paperhouse then and I still love it. The film is unique; I can think of no other film that makes me feel precisely the way this film does. Paperhouse creates a sense of impinging dread that I have felt in few other horror films. It also features one of the most effective “Boo” moments ever.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Young Anna (Charlotte Burke) is sent home from school after a fainting spell, during which she has an unusual dream. Her doctor prescribes bed rest, and Anna fills her days poring over drawings she has made in her exercise book of an odd-looking house with a face at the window. At night she visits that house in vivid dreams, and befriends the house’s sole occupant. Though he warns her to leave, Anna feels compelled to stay… meanwhile, a man approaches from the darkness. A man with a hammer.

What is not to like?

FULL DISCLOSURE: The pace of this film is glacial, I will admit.  I cannot figure out what purpose this slowness serves. At times, it seems that this material would be better suited to a short film, though I read on the Wikipedias that the book upon which it is based, Mariana Dreams by Catherine Storr, has been sparked several film versions and was even turned into an opera in 2004.

Several online critics have found fault with young Charlotte Burke’s performance in the lead. I disagree. I think her acting is the anchor of the film; she is a very unaffected and believable eleven-year-old. Sadly, this would be Burke’s only film.

TRIVIA FACT: Glenn Headly reportedly played the entire film with her real American accent. After shooting was completed, the decision was made to have her character be British. Headly went back and re-looped all of her own dialogue. This might actually account for the strange “disconnect” I have always felt in her performance.

I am glad that this film was made before the scourge of CGI because one of the film’s creepiest aspects is how the Art Director and his crew have turned Anna’s drawings into a concrete physical world in which the characters can interact. The uneven lines of the buildings and rooms and the strange surface textures all contribute to the understated creepiness that I treasure.

Besides the creepy atmosphere and the tone of slowly mounting dread, I think the film excels at portraying a particular moment of adolescence. We all briefly exist in a strange purgatory between childhood and adulthood and feel tremendous anxiety about leaving the safety of home and family for the relative unknown of the outside world. The film takes this universal anxiety and literalizes it, turning it into a fable that we can both enjoy and examine.

Paperhouse is now available (split into eight-and-nine-minute pieces) on the YouTubes. Or, if you can track down the student who stole my VHS copy, tell him I said you could borrow it.


  1. This is one of the few films I will power through the commercials to watch on IFC. Surprisingly understated score by Hans Zimmer here. Also, I wonder if Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean had either this movie or its source material in mind when they conceived Coraline, or even MirrorMask.

  2. I very rarely do it, but I may have to acquire this through less-than-legitimate means and give it a watch. And by "less-than-legitimate means" I mean stalking and murdering all of your former students one-by-one until I find that tape. Because illegal downloading is wrong.

  3. Great film. Had the VHS too, until I purchased it on Amazon.uk as a region 2 DVD.

    The first film by Bernard Rose, who also directed "Candyman" and "Immortal Beloved."

  4. Looks like I now have something to look for at the con next year.

  5. It's hard to explain why exactly (though reading JB's column again helps) but I really enjoyed this movie. It's the kind of movie where if you walked in on five minutes of it you might think it looked/sounded like some bad 80s cheese (with an annoying child lead no less) - on their own and out of context the individual elements might not seem that great, but the whole thing comes together (especially the lead girl's performance which does just fit perfectly somehow) to make for a genuinely creepy and absorbing film.

    I'm not sure I'd say it'll work for everyone but if you're into horror, and you don't NEED it to be full of blood and guts, it's definitely worth a shot!

  6. It's up there with Picnic at Hanging Rock, The City of lost children and Coraline for getting under your skin and giving you the Heebeegeebees!