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Film / Paperhouse

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A 1988 British fantasy horror film from Working Title Films, adapted from Catherine Storr's 1958 children's novel Marianne Dreams; screenwritten by Matthew Jacobs (perhaps best known for the Doctor Who TV Movie), directed by Bernard Rose (perhaps best known for Candyman), and scored by Hans Zimmer.

In class, Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) draws a picture of a house. After being sent to stand in the corridor for misbehaviour, she faints, and dreams of a sloping coastal moor, atop which looms a house. She then succumbs to a fever, whose recurring dreams bring her back to the foreboding scene. On house call, Dr Nicols (Gemma Jones) mentions a boy in her care who has trouble walking. Anna draws in the house’s upstairs window the face of a boy. In another dreamed visit to the house, its upstairs window reveals young Marc (Elliot Spiers), who announces the house to be bereft of stairs.

On separate paper, Anna draws an interior for the house, and on subsequent visits, becomes acquainted with Marc, who can't walk. Frustrated by the absence of her Dad (Ben Cross), Anna adds his graphite likeness to the house, scribbles over it, and scrunches it up, whereupon mother Kate (Glenne Headly) unwittingly throws the paper out. On her next dreamed visit to the house, Anna finds it to be in disarray — while outside waits a surreally disfigured version of her Dad...

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Anna’s Dad, currently away on business, is recovering from a drinking problem.
  • And You Were There: Dr Nicols' paralytic young patient Marc, and later Anna’s Dad, both appear in the dreamed Paperhouse. The confused mania of Anna’s Dad seems to be channelled through her disquiet at his past alcoholism, and further aggravated by her scribbling over his drawing’s face.
  • Art Initiates Life: Anna’s drawing of a house is followed by her vividly dreamed coastal moor, on which stands a house. Addition to the sketched house’s window of a young boy’s face is followed by arrival in the dreamed house of Marc, a paralytic young boy.
  • Bizarrchitecture: While of solid greystone, the dreamed Paperhouse retains the wonky angles of its sketched originator. When Anna draws a stack of books, their dreamed equivalent appear fused into a wall.
  • Came Back Wrong: A pre-mortem example. Anna draws her Dad by the Paperhouse, but, discontent with his angry expression, scribbles over it. On appearance by and in the dreamed Paperhouse, her Dad seems to have forgotten who he is, which has driven him to furious, maniacal desperation. Oh, and his face is hidden by numerous scars, as a result of his graphite likeness having been scribbled out.
  • Character Development: While initially occasionally sullenly aggressive, Anna’s dreamed visits to the Paperhouse gender a supportive friendship with Marc.
  • Death of a Child: Shortly after a dreamed encounter, Anna learns that Marc has died.
  • Did Not Think This Through: In the Paperhouse’s interior, Anna draws Marc walking - but bases the legs on a photo on those of some porcelain sculptures, resulting, on her next dreamed visit, two detached sculptures thereof. While she manages to supply the house with books, food and a computer, the stack of books is partly fused into the wall. Her scant grasp of a computer’s workings has resulted in a disassembled model.
  • Disappeared Dad: Kate and Anna dearly miss Anna’s Dad, away on business.
  • Dream Walker: Both Anna and Marc find themselves in Anna’s dreams, seemingly brought there by Anna’s drawing.
  • Empathic Environment: Having scrunched up her drawing, Anna’s next dreamed visit to the Paperhouse sees it in a state of disarray. When the drawing is set alight by a bedside candle, the moor before the house’s gate splits apart in a fire-spewing fissure.
  • Identity Amnesia: The dreamed appearance of Anna’s Dad, due to Anna having scribbled over her drawing of his face.
  • Jump Scare: Anna briefly dozes off in the bath, and dreams of a seaside holiday, on which she took a photograph of her Dad. As she dreams of her Dad happily posing for the camera, his smiling face suddenly adopts a look of crazed solemnity. Accompanied by a screech of seagulls and a Scare Chord, he lurches, at surreal speed, towards the camera.note 
  • The Kindness of Strangers: When Kate accidentally throws out the drawing, a horrified Anna insists they search the outside bins. Just as the dustmen arrive, they rather kindly agree to search the bin liners.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Is she truly meeting and communicating with Marc in a Shared Dream, or is his presence in the dreams simply a creation of her mind?
  • Man on Fire: When Marc strikes him with a hammer, the disfigured apparition of Anna’s Dad bursts into flame, and falls into the fiery fissure.
  • Nightmare Face: The warped apparition of Anna’s Dad is obscured by surreally numerous scars across the face, due to his drawing’s face having been scribbled over.
  • Ocean Awe: Having evaded the danger, Anna and Marc’s next dreamed encounter makes a peaceful visit to the ocean clifftop.
  • Parents as People: While Anna’s parents are loving and conscientious, Anna’s Dad has suffered a drink problem. Her mother tries hard to patiently meet Anna’s resentful outbursts.
  • The Power of Friendship: When the nightmarish apparition of Anna’s Dad drags her out of the Paperhouse, paralytic Marc is driven to shuffle downstairs, grab a hammer, and use it as an improvised weapon.
  • Product Placement: Anna’s sketch of a bottle of pop creates a surreally big bottle of Coca Cola.
  • Psychopomp: On learning Marc to have been discharged from hospital, Anna, to her drawing of their mutually visited lighthouse, adds a helicopter. On learning Marc to have died, Anna, on a coastal holiday with her parents, makes a waking visit to the dreamed lighthouse. Overhead flies a helicopter, from which calls a voice implied to be that of Marc’s spirit. While she vainly reaches for a dangling rope ladder, the voice tells her to get away from the edge of the cliff.
  • Scenery Porn: Expansive shots of the moor, house, nearby coastal cliffs and lighthouse invoke both fearful and joyous awe.