With all of the gratuitous sex and violence that come with modern horror movies, they are generally thought of as fare for mature audiences. However, there exists a category of cinema that bridges the gap between the scary animated films of Disney such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the controversial X-rated schlock films like Cannibal Holocaust. Rated G or PG, this group of films, which includes classics like Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods, has served as a gateway for kids to enter into the world of horror without alarming their parents too badly. In 1988, a film called Paperhouse was released that walked the line between childhood innocence and nightmarish terror very well, inspiring fear in youngsters everywhere.
Paperhouse is the story of a young girl named Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke in her only cinematic performance) who, while sitting bored in class one day, draws a house. A girl sitting next to her ridicules her artwork and, after an altercation, Anna is made to stand in the hallway as a punishment. While out there, Anna passes out and dreams that she is in her picture with the house. When she comes to, she is diagnosed with a high fever and is confined to bed. With nothing else to do, Anna draws a young boy in the window of the house, but accidentally gives him a sad mouth. She falls asleep and visits the house again, and the boy is in the window. However, Anna has not given the house any stairs so he can’t open the door for her. When she wakes, Anna draws stairs and falls sleep again. She is now able to visit the boy in the house and learns that his name is Marc (Taxandria’s Elliot Spiers) and, because he was drawn with a frown, he is perpetually unhappy. Because Anna also drew him without legs, Marc cannot walk. Anna continues to draw things in the house for Marc, but none of them come out quite right; the legs she drew for him don’t move, there are no cones for the ice cream machine that she created, and the computer that she gave him does not function. Anna draws her father (Ben Cross from Chariots of Fire) inside the picture in order to help them, but inadvertently sketches him with an angry expression on his face. Scared, she tries to cross his face out, but only scribbles out his eyes. When her father appears in the picture, he is both blind and furious – and comes after Anna and Marc with a vengeance.
Like most of the pre-teen fright flicks, Paperhouse is fairly light on violence, so it is almost more of a fantasy movie than a horror film. The screenplay was adapted for the screen by Matthew Jacobs (who also worked on such kid-friendly content as “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” and Lassie) from children’s writer Catherine Storr’s novel “Marianne Dreams,” so the Disney-esque aspects of the story are firmly in place. However, Paperhouse was also directed by Bernard Rose, the filmmaker who brought Candyman and Snuff-Movie to life, so the horror elements are there as well. Storr’s story, rewritten by Jacobs and filtered through the eyes of Rose becomes a chilling film that sends even the most hardened of children begging to sleep with their parents.
The reason that Paperhouse is an effective children’s horror film is because, like other gateway horror films for young people, the main characters are kids. There are adults in the film, but they are typical authority figures – parents, teachers, doctors. The story belongs to Anna and Marc, and Charlotte Burke and Elliot Spiers are likeable and relatable enough to keep an audience of children interested. Unfortunately, both youngsters had truncated movie careers; Paperhouse is the only celluloid appearance of Burke, and Spiers mysteriously and tragically fell to his death from a hospital window after having a bad reaction to an anti-malaria medication at the young age of twenty, leaving only one more film to his credit. Although both leads enjoyed woefully short film careers, Paperhouse stands as a wonderful tribute to the talents of both actors.
The most frightening element of Paperhouse (actually, the only frightening element) is the father. For reasons never fully explained, Anna’s dad is absent from her real life, so he becomes a mysterious, shadowy figure in the paper world. It is clear by the fact that Anna draws him into the picture to assist her that she respects and idolizes him, yet the scary face that she gives him also illustrates how much she fears him. She summons him for help, but she ends up fleeing from him when he is angered by his not having eyes. Fearful respect is something with which most children can relate, and it is at the root of the threat in Paperhouse.
Thanks to some inventive photography by cinematographer Mike Southon (Gothic, Snow White: A Tale of Terror), Paperhouse manages to illustrate the difference between Anna’s imaginary world and the real world without making it seem like the viewer is watching two different movies. All of the colors are fairly neutral and washed out, but the paper world is more surreal and fantastic when compared to the ho-hum, drab real world. The paper world is full of unnatural angles and unrealistic physics while the real world is, well, real. The two worlds are not as jarringly different as say, the awake and dream worlds in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the differences are enough for the viewer to realize where Anna would rather be – and where she is trapped once her angry father comes after her and Marc. The scenes with Anna’s father are especially surreal, becoming darker and more filled with shadows, turning Anna’s dream world into a nightmare. Although there are only a handful of truly frightening moments in Paperhouse, all of them take place in this nightmarish otherworld, and it’s extremely effective.
The music in Paperhouse can best be described as playful and hypnotic. The score was written primarily by heavyweight Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight, Inception) but, as one of his earlier films, it’s hardly indicative of his more indulgent and extravagant masterpieces. Nonetheless, the music fits well with the children’s horror motif. The score is rounded out by a handful of pieces by the more traditional horror composer Stanley Myers (notable for scoring such Pete Walker schlock films as Schizo and Frightmare) and a few classical standards. Between Zimmer’s heavy lifting and Myers’ spooky sounds, Paperhouse boasts a memorable soundtrack.
Every horror fan fondly remembers the films that introduced them to the genre. Paperhouse is one of those films that, although it doesn’t seem all that scary to adult eyes, is absolutely horrifying to a kid who stayed up late against his or her parents’ advice to watch it alone in the dark on a Saturday night.