Time for another entry in the Wish List, my lament for sorely absent DVD releases. Today: Paperhouse, to date available only in Region 2 and 4 imports, which is a real tragedy. Allow me to explain.
When I first saw Paperhouse on VHS back in the mid-90s, it was the first time in far too long that a film managed to frighten me. This was all the more surprising in that it is based (loosely) on Marianne Dreams, a children’s book by Catherine Storr. But given how so many children’s tales are based on some pretty primal nightmares, perhaps it is fitting that I felt an atavistic chill. Director Bernard Rose would go on to direct Candyman, to date still the best adaptation of a Clive Barker tale, but for my money this is a more affecting and more frightening film.
Our heroine is 11-year-old Anna (Charlotte Burke). Her father (Ben Cross) is absent from her life much of the time because of his work, and so the household is mostly Anna and her harried mother (Glenne Headly). The mother-daughter relationship is as fractious as one would expect at that age, and, in a refreshingly un-Hollywood approach, Anna is certainly no angel. But then she starts having fainting spells. During these spells, she finds herself in another world, and there she sees the house she has been busy drawing on paper. Her artistic skills are those of any average 11-year-old, and so the house is badly proportioned, and rather ominous-looking as far as the audience is concerned. Anna, however, is delighted. When she wakes up, she begins adding to her drawing, and these additions appear in the world when next she sleeps, which she does more and more as a scary fever sets in. One of the early additions is a boy (Elliott Spiers) she draws in an upper window. And since she didn’t draw him any legs, naturally he can’t walk. Their relationship is prickly at first, but soon becomes a friendship. So far, so nice, but the sudden musical cues and generally dark look of the dreamworld keep the viewer on edge. Then Anna decides to draw her father. Unsatisfied with her effort, she scribbles him out. Result: a terrifying boogeyman enters the world.
Rose’s film was blurbed as “the thinking person’s Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that isn’t a half-bad thumbnail sketch. The boogeyman/father fills a role not unlike Freddy Krueger’s, though he is a far more emotionally real and terrifying figure. The sound design plays a crucial role here. This is a film to play at full volume, and the voice of the boogeyman comes straight out of every child’s most intimate nightmare. The central portion of the movie features a struggle that must surely rank as the most frightening dream-war yet committed to celluloid.
But this is not the end. The action climax comes a good half-hour before the end of the film, and the last act is an emotional one that punches as hard as the horror did earlier. This is an extraordinary work, and is well worth catching even if all one has is the VHS. But on DVD, given a full widescreen and surround sound treatment, the impact could be overwhelming.
We can dream, can’t we?