Paperhouse (1988)

Rating: B

Dir: Bernard Rose
Star: Charlotte Burke, Glenne Headly, Elliott Spiers, Gemma Jones

Back at the end of the 80’s – just when I was starting TC – the success of Hellraiser led to a significant revival of British horror. Dream Demon, Lair of the White Worm and Hardware all followed in Barker’s wake, taking various approached and with various degrees of success (as noted in our original review for this, below). Paperhouse represents the psychological end of the spectrum with Anna (Burke), occupying a strange middle ground between reality and fantasy as the result of illness. The drawings she makes while awake reflect her dreams, but Marc (Spiers), the sick boy she meets there, turns out to accurately depict another patient of her doctor (Jones).

She tries to make life better for Marc by adjusting her drawing, but her limited skills lead to more problems than it solves, especially when she brings a distorted and angry version of her absent father into the dream world. With hindsight, a book on Picasso wass probably not the best tutor for an aspiring 11-year old artist, given the circumstances. Can she sort things out there? And even if she does, will that have an effect in the real world? It’s surprising to realize this turned out to be Burke’s sole film role – her performance here is so natural, and you can’t help sympathizing even as she plays a very bratty kid, tormented with a whole host of issues, about her father, loneliness, etc.

Incidentally, Spiers’ career was extremely short too: he committed suicide barely five years later, it’s believed due to the side-effect of treatment for malaria, caught on location filming his second movie. What stands out most, however, is the cinematography and set design, which are striking, perfectly capturing Anna’s childish scribbles and making them ‘real’. The pacing is somewhat odd: the climax in the dream world happens about 20 minutes before the film finished, and while the ending makes more sense now than it apparently did at the time, things have already peaked. If they could have synced up the real and dream world climaxes, it might have worked better. But overall, this has stood the test of time marvelously (unlike some of its siblings), operating on many levels, and working on the vast majority of them.

What we said then: [0] British horror film-makers seem to be very interested in the relationship between dreams and reality; this is another example, but it deserves praise for trying a slightly different approach, even though it is not 100% successful. The story concerns a young girl (Burke), suffering from a glandular fever-type illness, who discovers that her hallucinations are affected, and can be controlled, by a sketch she is drawing. For a while this is great fun – then the visions start to take on a life of her own, and suddenly it isn’t quite as nice anymore.

For the first hour, this is an excellent film, far sharper than the muddled and confused Dream Demon, and almost up to the level of the great and god-like Hellraiser. The dream sequences are handled with a lot of style and imagination – the scenes where she is being chased by her dream father are especially impressive. Unfortunately, the pace in the last third slackens severely, and the ending is not brilliant. Nonetheless this remains an impressive film, and it is good to see the British horror film is still alive and well.