Movie of the Month: Paperhouse (1988)


Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Alli, and Britnee watch Paperhouse (1988).

Boomer: Paperhouse is an odd little film. Helmed by Brit director Bernard Rose, the film follows the frenzied dreams of an artistic young girl, Anna (Charlotte Burke), as she finds herself flipping back and forth between the real world (where she is suffering from a glandular fever) and the fantasy world that is home to the titular paper house of her design. The lines between reality and unreality start to blur as she strikes up a friendship with Marc (Elliott Spiers), a disabled boy living in the otherworldly house and with no memory of life outside of it; when she learns from her physician (Gemma Jones) that Marc is real, things start to get more surreal and bizarre.

This wasn’t Rose’s directorial debut; he had previously worked in various roles on the last season of The Muppet Show and on The Dark Crystal before a short stint making music videos, most notably for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” After two smaller films that are largely forgotten, Rose directed Paperhouse, which was a perennial favorite on IFC in the early 2000s, before moving on to direct cult classic (and his only other truly great film) Candyman, released in 1992. Candyman is undeniably a horror film, and Paperhouse was largely lumped in with the horror genre upon home video release as well, despite not strictly deserving that distinction. It’s much more of a mood piece, with a relatively simple story elevated by striking visuals and a moodily beautiful score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer (Rose certainly knows how to choose composers; Candyman’s Philip Glass soundtrack is so haunting that Glass apparently still makes royalties from it each year, no doubt helped by the fact that “Helen’s Theme” continues to appear in other genre works, most recently American Horror Story).

I love this film, and have seen it at least a half dozen times, but there is always enough time between each viewing that I forget that the film has a longer ending than I expect. For me, the film reaches its narrative conclusion when [spoiler alert] Anna learns that Marc has died. Although I’m not opposed to the resolution of Anna and her family (including her father, whose notable absence informs much of the psychological underpinnings of the film) returning to the seaside and revisiting a happier time, there is something about the ending that seems as little too pat, especially in light of the mildly silly scene in which Marc reappears to Anna. What do you think, Brandon? Did the ending seem out of place to you, or am I being too critical? Would you suggest a different conclusion?

Brandon: If I had to fault Paperhouse for anything it’d be the muddled nature of its central metaphor. The film operates in a spooky 80s kids’ movie headspace that I’m always a huge sucker for and the dream logic of both its set design & its eerie score is wonderfully chilling. There’s just something a little off in its dreamworld narrative that makes it difficult for me to track its overriding metaphor (not that I mind the ambiguity). Two sick children meet in the shared dreamworld set of a hand-drawn house and their recovery in the real world is dependent upon their progress in that fantasy space. Marc, who is unaware of this dichotomy despite Anna’s frequent explanations, suffers a fairly straightforward narrative where he slowly dies due to complications that arise through his muscular dystrophy. As Boomer points out, his death in the real world seems like a logical place for the story to end, but I do believe that the seaside resort epilogue was a necessary addition to the story, because Anna’s own struggle was at that point still largely unresolved.

Anna’s near-death experience with a glandular fever is what puts her in contact with the paperhouse fantasy where she meets Marc, but her true conflict is a mental health struggle related to her anxieties over an absent, alcoholic father. When Marc dies he rides a helicopter to heaven that relieves the real world pains of his body. In the seaside epilogue Anna tempted to leave behind her own pain by joining Marc in the helicopter, a moment that’s coded as a suicide attempt at the edge of a cliff. This last minute crisis might not make much sense in a typical three act story structure, but I do think Anna flirting with the relief of death is a powerful idea that Paperhouse would be lacking without, especially in its indication that her mental health struggle wasn’t instantly wiped away upon her father’s return.

Where I stumble a little in my reading of this conflict is in understanding the exact relationship between Anna & her father. Paperhouse explains the father figure to be a drunk & an abandoner in the real world, which is meant to explain Anna’s anxiety, lashing-out rebelliousness, and eventual disinterest in continuing to live. In the dreamworld, however, her father is far more abusive than that. Blinded by rage (both Anna’s & his own), Dream Dad strikes a terrifying nightmare of an image, destroying the physical objects Anna created & cherished with a hammer and physically beating her in the chest nearly to the point of death. No mention is ever made in the real world of Anna being physically abused by her father, but the brutality & specificity of the hammer & the chest-beating in the dreamworld at least makes it plausible that Anna was afraid that such abuse was a possibility. Coming back to Boomer’s original question, if there’s anything lacking in the ending for me it’s how easy Anna & her father’s seaside reconciliation feels after the brutality of their altercation in the dreamworld. Anna gets in the cathartic zinger, “You don’t have to be invisible to disappear, Dad,” but she does eventually forgive him after the helicopter/suicide crisis and the family is again made whole, which might be a little too neat & tidy of a conclusion given Anna’s near-fatal parental anxieties.

Britnee, how literal did you take the physical abuse in the dreamworld to be? Do you think it was intended as a reflection of something that happened in the real world or simply an amplification of Anna’s anxieties over her father’s alcoholism?

Britnee: One of the many mysteries in Paperhouse is the relationship between Anna and her father. Part of me feels as though the abuse in the dreamworld was more of a reflection of something Anna witnessed rather than something she experienced herself. If her father did indeed abuse her, I feel as though she would have been much more fearful of him in her dreams, but she wasn’t very scared of him considering how creepy the whole situation was. I really think she witnessed her father abusing her mother. Anna’s dreams allowed her to see the potential of her father’s alcoholism, and it really seemed like a big eye opener for her in the real world. There was something about the mannerisms of her mother that makes me believe she had a traumatizing experience with her husband. She seemed a bit shaky when she would light up her cigarettes, and she seemed to be in an entirely different world herself (perhaps Anna’s real world was her paperhouse?). I do agree with Brandon’s frustration with the very simple reunion at the end of the film. It actually made me a little nervous for Anna’s well-being; however, I’ve also been watching a lot of Dr. Phil lately, so that may have something to do with my uneasy thoughts about Anna and Drunk Dad.

What I found most interesting about Paperhouse was the confusing soundtrack. Brilliant, but so confusing. During the film’s opening credits, I was waiting for a dead body to fall out into the school hallway. I kept waiting for a gruesome, terrifying scene, but by the latter half of the film, I just gave up. There were a handful of scenes that were spooky, especially when Drunk Dad captures Anna in her dreamworld, but nothing was half as scary as the tunes in the background. Needless to say, I was surprised to find that the film fell way more on the drama side than on the horror.

Alli, did you feel as though the film’s score was out of place? Did the music add to the creepiness of Anna’s dreamworld? Did you get more horror vibes or fantasy vibes from that world?

Alli: Initially the score felt very spooky and out of place to me and definitely made me feel like more bad things were going to happen; but once in the dreamworld, it felt really appropriate. The low ominous synth sounds seem to enhance the vast emptiness you see around the house. What especially made the score work in the dreamworld was that at some points it became diegetic with the talking radio. While the idea of a talking mumbling radio seems reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, here it was very creepy, as the nightmare dad seemed to be talking through it a little bit.

The dreamworld to me was very much a fantasy and an escape from the fact that she’s lonely at school and at home. While it starts off as something she can control very quickly it functions on it’s own bizarre logic, where some of the things she draws turn up very realistically and other things just are crooked and funny. It’s not until the faceless dad that it gets into nightmare zone, and even then he feels more like an intruder than an aspect of the dreamworld. In Anna’s life he is sort of an intruder, showing up whenever he feels like it both emotionally and physically.

But as much as the dad seems like a dark figure in Anna’s life, her mom is really not better at all. It’s no wonder she acts out with a mother who is as unsupportive as we see on screen. She criticizes Anna’s drawings very rudely and isn’t really nurturing at all until Anna is extremely ill, in a sort of trying to make it up to her way. Both parents seem to just make up for the lack of love with material things like riding lessons and manufactured happy trips to the seashore, which I think makes the ending more depressing and bitter.

Boomer, what did you think of the mom’s role? Is she just as bad as the dad or is she just a single mother at the end of her leash?

BoomerI feel like we’re being more critical of both parents here than is called for, at least based on my reading of the film. Multiple times, we see how the dreamworld of the paperhouse is influenced by things that Anna sees or vaguely recalls, or by her physical circumstances in the real world. The reason that Anna feels like she is being beaten in the dreamworld is because, in the waking world, the paramedics are giving her compressions to keep her alive. The reason that her father appears as a backlit creepy shadow is because she encouraged her mother to let the photo of him at the beach develop for too long, until he becomes a dark figure in the image, and thus in her mind. The father doesn’t seem abusive to me, either to his wife or to Anna, so much as he is an unknowable being, his absence making him a figure that is half-remembered and half-imagined, larger than life but imposing.

The mother, for her part, reads more as a woman who’s been run ragged by holding down a household with a misbehaving young girl, suddenly stricken with illness. She has artistic pursuits of her own, as evidenced by her home dark room, and likely has had to sublimate her interest into being both breadwinner and full time caretaker to Anna due to her husband’s chronic and prolonged absence.

One of the things I like most about the film is the fact that no character is a paragon. As a heroine, Anna is a surprisingly postmodern. She’s a girl, but not feminized. She’s not stereotyped as drawing a dream house that’s reminiscent of the kind of future home girls are encouraged to imagine, but a strikingly dull building instead. She tries on make-up, but not to impress a boy; she just wants to try it for herself. Usually, female protagonists can only avoid being sexualized if they are infantilized (and, unfortunately, not even then), and although Anna is young, she’s not treated as an idealized perfect child. She lies, she throws tantrums, she skips school, and, most importantly, she’s not demonized for this either. These are just aspects of her character, not flaws that need to be corrected with external discipline, but that make up the gestalt that is Anna. Her mother, though her screentime is shorter than Anna’s, makes her seem fully-fleshed in her own way as well. She even seems genuinely loving, going so far as to dig through the whole building’s trash to placate what she must assume is some feverish madness.

Am I giving the film too much credit, Brandon? Am I making excuses for the movie because I like it, or have I convinced you that there’s more going on at the character level than there first appears?

Brandon: Please forgive me for the banality of this answer, but I think a lot of that ambiguity falls under the umbrella of personal interpretation. Paperhouse is in the most basic sense a story about lucid dreaming. Dream logic always comes with a certain level of impenetrable surrealism to it and there’s been an entire industry full of psychologist “experts” built around the therapeutic benefits of dream interpretation. Then there’s the film’s art therapy element, in which Anna creates a personal space for herself where she can exude total control as an omnipotent (and highly fallible) god. Both the weird dream logic & the art therapy surrealism of the film’s basic plot leave Paperhouse with a lot of room for personal interpretation in its symbolism, especially once Anna’s drawings start affecting real world change in Marc’s medical condition. Personally, I see a drunk dad who scares Anna (who points out his alcoholism in the darkroom scene) and a mother who may be frazzled, but is not at all abusive (as evidenced in the manic trash-digging scene). I also read a third act suicide attempt at the edge of the cliff, but I’ll willingly admit that I’m reaching for a solid explanation for an intentionally lyrical moment there, which may be the wrong way to go about things in this movie.

So much of this movie is literally in Anna’s head that it’s near impossible to tell what’s “really” happening from minute to minute. How much of our darker interpretations of the parents’ behavior is being influenced by the horror film dread of Myers & Zimmer’s score? How much of the dreamworld content is merely, as Boomer suggests, reflections of images Anna encounters throughout the day, as many dreams tend to be? There’s no “true” answers to these questions, as the film intentionally deals in ambiguity. There’s evidence that Anna’s dreamworld surrogate was truly communicating with Marc’s, a boy she never met in a physical space, but everything else is left open-ended. The film kind of works like a coloring book: it provides a basic outline of how its world works and invites its audience to color in the details. Maybe we’ve been coloring a little outside the lines in our personal interpretations here, but I think the movie invites that kind misbehavior. I also don’t believe that misbehavior is a detriment to either of the central characters, though, as I never felt like I lost track of Marc or Anna as complex, multifaceted human beings. It’s their own personal interpretations of the adults in their lives that throw off our perception as an audience & complicate some of the film’s intent & metaphor.

Britnee, I’m getting some flashbacks to our Movie of the Month conversation about Black Moon here, particularly in our attempts to parse out what the film specifically “means.” Instead of picking apart an intentionally inscrutable art film, though, we’re discussing a movie that was ostensibly made with a very young audience in mind. Do you think the darkness & ambiguity helps the film in this case, considering the flexible imaginations of the children intended to see it? As adults, are we reading more solid, static interpretations of the film’s metaphor than we might have as kids, when Paperhouse could possibly have survived purely on mood instead of concrete symbolism?

Britnee:  While I was in college, I took a history class that focused on the 1960s, and most of that course involved watching films, such as Go Tell the Spartans and Easy Rider, and writing about them. Before viewing each film, my professor would say, “Remember, every detail, whether major or minor, in a film means something. There is symbolism everywhere.” That really stuck with me, and since then I always feel somewhat guilty if I don’t search for meaning behind every little detail in a movie. I’m glad that Brandon brought up the point that this is a film intended for a younger audience. I need to remind myself every now and then that sometimes (maybe even most of the time), films are created solely for the purpose of pleasure and entertainment.

Ignoring the interpretations we made of Anna’s dreamworld as well as her relationship with her parents (Drunk Dad in particular) and viewing the film through the eyes of a child, Paperhouse seems a bit more whimsical. A film about drawings that come to life in dreams and a magical friendship that only exists in the dreamworld seems a lot better than a film about a girl with neglectful and abusive parents. Paperhouse becomes another film entirely. Even the darker elements of the film take on a new meaning. Anna’s scary dream father becomes a product of a mistake in her magical drawing instead of an abusive parent turned villain. As for the darkness and ambiguity of the film, I think it actually contributes to the film’s fantasy elements and makes it much more exciting for the intended adolescent audience. If I was eight years old watching Paperhouse for the first time, my imagination would be running wild during those scenes in Anna’s dreamworld.

Alli, I was really irritated by the mystery between Anna and Marc’s friendship. If only we were able to know if Marc was having his own recurring dream with Anna. What if they were possibly sharing the same dream? The fact that we will never know just kills me. What are your thoughts on the telepathic connection between Anna and Marc? Would you have enjoyed seeing Marc’s side of things?

Alli: I think the interesting thing about Anna and Marc’s friendship is that he has no knowledge of the world outside the dream, which leads me to believe that he was kind of subconsciously called there. Not to try to make too much technical sense of dream logic, it seems like they are sharing a dream, but since he’s less in control of it he is much more wrapped up in the dream state. Like Brandon said Paperhouse seems to be about lucid dreaming. It would be a lot harder for Marc’s dream-self to be aware what’s going on. For him, this is probably just a really crappy dream where instead of being a fantastic escape he’s still sick and unable to walk and there’s this girl urging him to be happy. As we’ve already said, we’re very sympathetic with Anna though and it’s hard to fault a girl for accidentally summoning a sick boy into her dream. I think not knowing Marc’s side of things gives us an opportunity to watch Anna grow more from her perspective. Not seeing Marc’s side, we’re figuring him out as she is. By doing that this film really captures the vulnerability of making friends as kids with kid emotions. They’re so tumultuous and dramatic, because kids are still figuring out themselves and their own boundaries.

I’m going to dare to interpret the dream logic more and say that a lot of these volatile, underdeveloped emotions are mirrored in the dreams. Her dream house is bare. The dreams themselves go from just having a conversation to terrifying faceless dream dad pretty quickly.  As traumatic as they were, the dream conflicts help Anna find more of herself. These dreams are so hard and scary because figuring out yourself is hard and scary. She learns more how to honestly interact with people and to take responsibility for her actions. She learns empathy, which is really hard for kids to learn, by talking to Marc. As she learns more about herself and matures, the dreams become more fleshed out and less bleak. 



Brandon: Paperhouse reminds me of a very specific time in 80s children media where stories were allowed to be dark & ambiguous in a way that a lot of the more sanitized kids’ movies of late wouldn’t dare. Titles like The NeverEnding Story, Lady in White, and Return to Oz all specifically came to mind while watching the film, but I have to admit I think it’s closest comparison point was released in 2005. The Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman collaboration MirrorMask is a children’s fantasy film in which a young girl feels immense guilt over fighting with her mother before they’re separated by a sudden illness. She wrestles with this anxiety during an extended dream in which she enters & explores a world she drew by hand in her own bedroom. Sound familiar? MirrorMask is a little more obvious & blunt in its central metaphor & a lot more expansive in its dream space, but otherwise the pair make interesting companion pieces.I think if you really enjoyed one, it’d be more than worthwhile to seek out the other.

Alli: I also thought of MirrorMask, and its terrifying dreamworld, but another Neil Gaiman creation came to mind as well, Coraline, which is another story about a girl upset at her parents entering a dreamworld with duplicate parents. The terrifying Other Mother is reminiscent of faceless dad. But there’s another similarity for me. One disappointing thing the Coraline movie did that deviated from the book was to add in the male character, Wybie, that besides being a sidekick also seems to have an unnecessary crush on Coraline. And that kind of touches on my one gripe with Paperhouse. I kind of wished that Anna and Marc hadn’t become crushes and just remained friends. You so rarely see male-female friendships in movies.

Britnee: I feel really bad for being so rough on Anna’s father. He was probably just a really nice, hardworking man that has to sacrifice spending time with his family to make a decent living. Instead of seeing that initially, I jumped to conclusions and labeled him as an alcoholic and abusive father. Shame on me.

Boomer: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading the father as an alcoholic, as there is certainly reference to his drinking in the text. That having been said, the mind of our main character (and perhaps all children) has a tendency to exaggerate the real world, as evidenced in the way that things become larger than life in the dreaming, and that’s how I interpret that particular nuance. Still, although that’s my reading of the text, the other readings are certainly valid as well.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Alli presents Last Night (1999)

January: The Top Films of 2016

-The Swampflix Crew

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