31 Days of Hell: Paperhouse

Andrew reviews the rarely seen fantasy horror gem, Paperhouse

"This land is so flat. Just like my head."
Years before achieving Candyman and Immortal Beloved fame, British director Bernard Rose worked for the Jim Henson company on both The Muppet Show and 1981's The Dark Crystal before turning to music video work, most notably for the infamously banned Frankie Goes to Hollywood video Relax.  After a brief stint working in British television, Mr. Rose set his sights on what would become his first and arguably his most celebrated feature, the 1988 fantasy horror masterpiece Paperhouse. Based on the novel Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, it begins elusively as a children's film spoken of the same breath of Alice in Wonderland.  What seems to be an innocent coming of age adolescent fantasy of an 11 year old girl named Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke in her only major role to date) suffering from glandular fever with a sketchbook of doodles at her side paving the way for her dreamscapes slowly develops into a full blown adult oriented horror film.  Despite being populated largely by children and focusing on the plight of a child, this is not by any means a "kid's movie", far too Freudian in symbolism and disturbing visually to be processed by minors.  It is however a precursor in ways to Candyman with it's ominous adversary stalking the terrain and Rose's own obsession with the occult and dream states.    

Visually Rose has crafted a netherworld of the mind in the form of a decrepit and empty house in the middle of a vast empty plain.  It begins simplistically with the innocence of a child playing pretend in their backyard before increasingly dark and frightening forces permeate the picture.  It's an ornate and intricately crafted world of the mind which would most certainly inform images like the labyrinthine wooden house in Vanishing Waves.  Key to the film's mixture of awe and fear is an early collaborative score by Hans Zimmer and late composer Stanley Myers, which sneakily skates between both emotions without even trying.  Let it be said the film wouldn't work quite as well without the innate gift of Charlotte Burke as Anna, imbuing the little girl with confidence, curiosity and her own sense of self preservation.  Aiding Burke is an all star cast including Glenne Headly (Tess Trueheart from Dick Tracy) as Anna's mother, Gemma Jones (Madeleine from The Devils) as Anna's concerned doctor and Ben Cross as the mercurial father figure.  Ultimately though the film is in Burke and Rose's hands and the two take the viewer on quite the terrifying and emotionally satisfying journey.

"Too much weed makes
my eyes look like this."
While not categorically considered to be a horror film, as it contains elements of fantasy, drama and a children's movie, it's far too frightening and thematically complex to not be one.  Paperhouse is the kind of movie Tim Burton would make if he had a pair and Guillermo Del Toro would happily steal from knowing not many people have seen this film due to it's ongoing distribution Hell in the states.  Released on video briefly in the United States before revival showings on Bravo Network, Paperhouse is almost entirely unavailable in the US, forcing most consumers to peruse the internet for import copies.  Far more mature than most coming of age fantasy films dealing with adolescence and budding sexuality, Paperhouse can indeed be troubling for some viewers.  And yet as a genre hybrid it announces it's writer-director Bernard Rose as a truly original talent working under the radar with few outside influences other than his own impetus.  As with most of Rose's work, availability isn't always easy to come by and in some cases like ivansxtc or Snuff Movie, fans have had to go an extra mile in order to see them.  Whether you consider Snuff Movie worth the effort or not, Paperhouse absolutely is and as it stands represents one of the most interesting and difficult to categorize fantasy horror thrillers of the late 1980s.  It's the kind of film that burrows and haunts you well after the end credits have rolled.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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