Saoirse’s Cult Corner #40: Paperhouse (1988)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

Today, to tie into the release of the new Candyman film, we take a look at Bernard Rose’s dark horse in his filmography, 1988’s Paperhouse.

The remake/sequel of Candyman is currently releasing to broadly positive reviews at time or writing. The original is one of the most fascinating horror films in the anglophone canon. A dreamlike mixture of slasher violence, MR James type ghost story, and politically allegorical fairytale; iconic performances from the likes of Tony Todd, Virginia Madsen, and Kasi Lemmons make this 1992 classic stand out. This is aided by a glacial score from storied composer Phillip Glass, one of his best. The director, Bernard Rose is a curious figure in cult film history. Coming out of music videos for the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, he would be remembered as one of the greats if it wasn’t for certain turns his career took after making back to back classics of horror in the form of Candyman in America and Paperhouse in his home country of Great Britain, a film we’ll talk about today.

Paperhouse follows Anna Madden, an 11 year old girl suffering from glandular fever, on her birthday, as a fainting fit starts to reveal her illness. Eagle eyed and well informed viewers will notice connections to 2014’sThe Falling. In her fainting fits, she finds herself in a strange dream on a barren moor, a world of nothing, filled with alien environments. Eagle eyed and well informed viewers will already be thinking of 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which we’ve covered here before. After she hears of another boy who’s bedridden and can’t walk she begins to draw a world that adds itself to the empty void of her dreams and seems to come to life independently of her actions, more and more so as the film progresses. Eagle eyed and well informed viewers will be reminded of the 2012 episode of Doctor Who, ‘Fear Her’, which is obviously inspired by this film upon watching it. 

The film has a similarly televisual sensibility at first. In a similar way to Candyman, it doesn’t play its hand of horror until you’re well into the movie. Whereas, in Candyman, it plays itself like a gritty look at racialised urban decay as the fantasy slowly works its way in, for Paperhouse, it has a similar tone and structure to something like Coraline, or A Monster Calls, or at a push, Bridge to Terabithia. It fits right into the common rubric of fantasy kid’s films in which either a kid is sick or a family member is sick and/or absent and the kid escapes into fantasy. Such films include My Neighbour Totoro, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Over The Moon. Paperhouse takes a path that will be familiar to fans of the Neil Gaiman novella and Henry Sellick animated masterpiece Coraline. The fantasy escape takes on disturbing parallels with the real world, informed by the troubles our young protagonist faces and her alienation from the life of a distinctly average British (regarding Coraline, in the novella) girl. Slowly the way our protagonist’s own life is reflected by the mirror world in her fantasy gets more and more sinister, insidious, and disturbing. When the horror comes in both movies it is properly terrifying in the specific way you want from horror accessible to kids and speaking to their lives. That’s something worth noting as another parallel between the two movies, they are both very scary to the point where they are often recommended as not for kids but that’s simply not the truth. Kids deserve really scary horror if they want to grow up to properly appreciate a genre so rich with meaning and entertainment. It’s also true that kids love being scared and to try to mollycoddle the media they take in is to undervalue and underestimate them. Maybe not to my extent where I was watching The Exorcist at 12, (and I turned out just fine!), but they can handle this stuff. 

Something worth noting is Paperhouse‘s interpretation of the dream space, which I found quite compelling, unique, and fascinating in a few ways. I’ve read some reviews by intelligent people who call it too dull in the way it represent’s a child’s imagination and I see where they’re coming from. The filmmakers have gone to great pains to represent this fantasy world as an empty space to be filled, and the reason for that is that this isn’t the child’s imagination. It’s some liminal fantasy space that the child’s imagination slowly fills with stuff as soon as she gives it form in the shape of a drawing. What she doesn’t draw, the film doesn’t include, as made quite pointed when a child that our protagonist draws can’t walk because she didn’t draw him legs. This sense of emptiness and plainness actually really well compliments the emotional tone of the film. Our child protagonist is unhappy, her father is absent and she doesn’t get along with her mother and she’s suffering from a very severe illness. Fans of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, (a film that I personally dislike for different reasons), will recognise the artistic idea of a character’s own depression depressing their view of the world around them, infecting their own brain and the way they understand and imagine things. It is very accurate to what depression actually feels like to live with. I’ve also read takes that say that it’s anti-escapism, which it might be but I don’t think it is, but it’s not really about the limitations of escapist imagination per se. It is very directly about imagination being powerful enough to transcend the physical space and link two minds that are in pain. It’s quite beautiful and nearly schmaltzy when put that way. Yes there is darkness, but only so much as there is darkness in all of us, which is really where the horror comes from. It is even handed in the way it shows how your own mind and imagination produces joy and creativity and alliance but also has dangers, perverse abstractions of our fears lying in wait. Which is very honest in my opinion. While the text of the film is very ambiguous about how much of the world of the dream is informed by reality and how much is informed by paranoia infecting imagination, once viewed through this lens and understanding of the world the film conjures, it all makes much more sense. 

Bernard Rose would follow up the majestic and beguiling Paperhouse with a much more slick horror film that, despite challenging conventional wisdom on what American slashers could say and how they could be structured, has become an enduring classic. Candyman has the intelligent, mean slickness of Halloween and all the gore of Friday the 13th but for some reason hasn’t, until now, been held up to the status of those films, (despite being better).  Candyman has taken this time to reach the level of respect and appreciation it currently enjoys, in part, because it’s neither part of a directorial canon of study like Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or the progenitor for a hugely successful and long running franchise like Friday the 13th or Hellraiser. Despite revolutionising the way both slashers and ghost stories could behave, Candyman, until now, has been seen largely as a b tier slasher movie. Rose’s career did nothing to aid this. Soon after its release he helmed a big budget disaster in the form of Anna Karenina and he would continue to adapt Tolstoy in what looked to many like a desperate bid to capture what he had previously failed to so spectacularly, chasing his white whale, which to many critics put somewhat of a stain on his back catalogue of work, unfortunately. This is a shame because Paperhouse and Candyman speak to a masterful horror director we never really got to see the full fruition of, which to me is a real tragedy to cinema, a real shame. 

Paperhouse remains somewhat lost in the annals of slightly obscure British horror movies along with Dream Demon which we’ve covered previously in this column. Britain has a rich history of exciting horror films and they somewhat get lost in the shuffle. This particular film I think could speak very well to the concerns of young people and give then a riveting entry point into the world of horror and cult cinema.

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