I remember long hours as a child dreaming wild dreams. I would constantly create dioramas with action figures and assorted pieces of debris as props and obstacles. Almost always, events or oppositions I faced in real life would manifest itself into whatever melodrama I created in my isolation and I would live out these adventures and solve these imaginary problems armed with little else than the powers possessed by the heroes that cascaded through the endless movies, books, and cartoons that I devoured at a daily rate. Of course, these influential icons would enter into my dream world, and here is where these hallucinations would take on a life of their own, often times acting on their own accord without any effort from myself. The mark of childhood imagination is a mind unencumbered by social limitations because "normal" or "adult" boundaries are still have yet to be experienced and enforced. The results can be wild and untamed, but in the end the result is built totally on innocence.
This may be why this type of imagination has been the subject for the directors of so many great films throughout the years. Alice In Wonderland, The Secret Garden, and Wizard Of Oz are perhaps three of the most famous examples of movies that deal with the fantastical dream worlds of children and their relationship with reality. In 1980's this type exploration came into full bloom, with filmmakers that were finally beginning to document, expose, and exploit this feeling of reckless abandonment with a flurry of classic movies that the public devoured and celebrated, with all-timers like Labyrinth, Time Bandits, The Princess Bride, and The Neverending Story being perhaps the pinnacles of this particular movement. One could even say that mildly "realistic" movies like Goonies, Explorers, and even the Nightmare On Elm Street series drew from the desires and pitfalls of adolescent fantasy.
Paperhouse, released in 1988, encompasses all of the particular traits it's surrealistic contemporaries do, but refuses to embody any sort of the optimism or whimsy characteristic of the classic 80's fantasy flick. In this world there are no hypercolor Oz landscapes, dizzying Gilliam camerawork, or flamboyantly dressed Bowie-esque adversaries. In fact, this movie is at times painfully uneventful, ruthlessly timed, and spartanly cast but deftly explores the melancholia of a child with intense abandonment issues in beautifully cinematic detail. The main character Anna, played by Charlotte Burke, is a most precocious child possessed with an artistic mind whose feelings about the deteriorating relationship with her father due to alcoholism and/or abandonment fuel her increasingly intense need for escapism. She first fakes an illness to get out of school but after getting caught, decides to skip school with a friend and ends up contracting a form of glandular fever while falling unconscious in the woods. After this failed attempt at rebellion from her frustrating family situation, she starts to lose herself in her crude drawing of an imaginary house with simple inhabitants, which predictably, start to take on a life and realism all their own. This is the point where Paperhouse starts to stray from other movies in the dreamscape vein. Instead of a neon colored Dali styled slumberland, Anna's dreams culminate into a grey, featureless house, populated only by her irrational fears and a paraplegic boy named Marc who speaks in broken circles, representing a figure of companionship and understanding but is actually rather skeptical and introverted. This stark and depressing cerebral jail sits in the middle of vast wheat field that appears to have no end, perhaps a nod to "Christina's World" the incredibly bleak masterpiece painting by painter Andrew Wyeth. Our protagonist poses lots of questions, but an explanation for these surroundings and the young pairs shared predicament is never offered. The rather minimalist plot only moves along when Anna decides to make changes to the drawing according to her mood and life events. Throughout the narrative she either tries to correct these mistakes or make additions on her precious piece of paper, but each of these changes present new sets of problems and obstacles. Initially, she is inspired to make artistic depictions of food, toys, and fun amenities to provide an idealistic clubhouse atmosphere where her and Marc can hang out contently, but then a rather frustrated episode leads Anna to deface and ruin her paperhouse, causing an apocalyptic disaster within her dreams. Her rather impulsively repulsive take on her father eventually turns into an eyeless ogre that leads to the one of the only moments in the film that could be considered a climax. One thing that is only briefly mentioned is that Anna is taking unspecified medication at the insistence of her mother, who seems to at once understand her daughters plight but also seems deeply disturbed by her actions. The unstable mind of an artist is perhaps hereditary, and she secretly knows it. Mom, it turns out, is a brooding photographer. All the while, Anna starts to believe that all her drawings are manifesting themselves into reality and in the end the viewer is left to decide how much of that is true.
In the world of cult cinema, Paperhouse is glibly thrown into the horror film genre. While the psychological downward spiral angle is definitely harrowing, the psycho-thriller pacing, fantasy plotline, and icy cinematography deserves a more flexible categorization. Directed by Bernard Rose ("Candyman"), and intensely scored by the great Hanz Zimmer, Paperhouse is a minimalist study in the minor dementia that can affect mentally overactive children from broken homes and the edgy emptiness that pervades the movie lingers within the brain long after the movie has ended.