One of the most easily accessible ways to explore the themes, nuances, and techniques of a work of art is finding a contrast & compare reference point in another work to bounce ideas off of. November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, is an interesting case in this regard, as it hovers between so many different genres (horror, fairy tale, melodrama, children’s adventure), without ever firmly landing under any of those categories. After looking to director Bernard Rose’s subsequent horror masterpiece Candyman and the genre-defiant melodrama that spooked me most as a child, Lady in White, I still can’t shake the idea that Paperhouse only has one true 1:1 companion film. A 2005 feature film collaboration between visual artist Dave McKean & his frequent writing partner Neil Gaiman, MirrorMask is a clear contrast & compare reference point for Paperhouse in many surprising, improbable ways. If Rose’s film wasn’t a direct influence on its 2005 counterpart, it’s at least somewhat safe to assume that it had a subconscious, maybe even cultural influence. You can clearly hear Paperhouse‘s echo in MirrorMask‘s story & tone, as well as in the basic fabric of the fiction-writing career of its much beloved author, Gaiman.
In Paperhouse, a young girl who is frustrated with her mother’s parenting & her father’s chronic absence falls ill with an intense fever and enters her own crayon drawings of a sparsely decorated house every time she falls asleep. In MirrorMask, a girl has an argument with her mother the day the parent falls into a coma. Tormented with guilt for treating her mother cruelly the last time they spoke, she cries herself to sleep and awakes inside the expansive drawing she has posted on her bedroom wall. Both films follow their young protagonists as they work through their complicated feelings for their parents in a fantasy space of their own artistic design. In Paperhouse it means living through the fear of an absent father who has become abstracted & monstrous in his child’s mind (so much so that much of our conversation on the film was an attempt to rationalize whether or not he was a physically abusive drunk). In both works changes in the art-bound fantasy world & the lonely, declining health “real” world affect each other in massive, often catastrophic ways. This comes to a head in both instances when the world-containing artworks in question are partially destroyed, leaving vast rubble in their wake. I’m not sure how many children’s art therapy-themed lucid dreaming fantasy dramas about familial strife & crises of poor health are out there in the world, but these are two British productions that echo each other in undeniably significant ways.
When I mentioned these MirrorMask comparisons in our original conversation on Paperhouse, Alli seconded the connection, but added “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.” She also wrote, “The terrifying Other Mother [of Coraline] is reminiscent of the faceless dad [of Paperhouse],” which is certainly true. Here’s where I make a full confession: I was never especially interested in reading Neil Gaiman’s fiction until after I fell in love with MirrorMask in the mid 00s, at which point I read several of his novels in a row. They were all well-written and interesting (and he seemed like an exceedingly charming guy when I briefly met him at a signing in 2006), but I couldn’t shake a certain sameness in the types of stories he tended to tell. Neverwhere, Coraline, MirrorMask, and so on all play like a “down the rabbit hole” story where a character in the “real” world slips into a fantasy space to work out personal & emotional issues they struggled dealing with otherwise. Alli was right to point out the similarities in Coraline, which was written long before MirrorMask, despite its film adaptation arriving at theaters years after that forgotten Dave McKean gem. As Paperhouse was released just a couple years before Neil Gaiman transitioned into his since-steady career as a prolific (if slightly repetitive) novelist, I have to wonder if that film had any direct influence on the kinds of stories he likes to tell.
Are the thematic similarities in Coraline & MirrorMask in particular an echo of what Gaiman found fascinating in Paperhouse or is that connection entirely incidental, a result of two independent minds coming to a similar conclusion on their own? Gaiman once compared MirrorMask to “such films as Labyrinth, Spirited Away, and Paperhouse” in an interview promoting the film, describing them as “films of a certain kind of genre in which a girl gets to go somewhere and search something out.” I guess I should take that admission as a vindicating acknowledgement of the film’s influence on the writer’s work, but I’m not satisfied to leave it there. If I ever find myself in another Q&A-type scenario with Gaiman, I’d have to ask him about his relationship with Paperhouse & how it may have influenced not only MirrorMask, but the types of stories he likes to tell in general. Until that ever comes up in an interview, though, the best I can say is that Gaiman devotees & MirrorMask‘s small cult of lonely fans owe it to themselves to give Paperhouse a look. Its far-reaching influence might surprise them, as it did with me, considering how little recognition it gets as a significant work in its own right.
For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at director Bernard Rose’s best known work, Candyman, and last week’s comparison with its 1988 childhood horror contemporary Lady in White.