Here's something strange: a not-quite-supernatural, almost-horror, killing-free, absolutely terrifying late Eighties British film. Still not available on DVD in the U.S., Paperhouse, from Bernard Rose (who went on to make 1992's unsettling, if ultimately excessive racial alle-gory Candyman), is one of those movies that largely takes place in the literal world of nightmares. This sort of narrative framework usually gives filmmakers carte blanche to go to any lengths necessary to achieve their effects, atmosphere, scares, etc--to abandon logic in the face of dream space and temporality. The results can be predictable, lazy, or unrestrained; outside of David Lynch's sui generis oeuvre, the dream world is difficult to capture yet easy to exploit. Even the slasher granddaddy of dream films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, quickly degenerated into a random assemblage of creepy pops and jolts; and (with the exception of the ridiculously coherent gay metaphor in Part 2: Freddy's Revenge) the sequels aren't even worth writing about.
The film-as-dream, horror-as-nightmare metaphors and attendant psychoanalytic theories are too tidy to bring up here, and too easily deployed to buoy lazy filmmaking; yet Rose's Paperhouse earns the distinction it so clearly invites. While much of the film plays like a full-moon fever dream, it's mostly grounded in a specific reality: that of childhood. Anna, a sullen, pre-teen adolescent girl with divorced parents, haphazardly doodles a rough drawing of a house during a school lesson. Soon enough, Anna is diagnosed with glandular fever, which sends her off into states of delirium and odd fantasies in which she enters the world of the drawing: the crummy pen-on-paper stick house becomes in her alternate dream reality a stark, foreboding house desolated on a grey moor. As she falls further into sickness and her own delusions, she begins to realize that she can adjust her dream world to her whim: therefore she sketches a boy's face in the upstairs window, peering out a sad, downturned frown. When she sleeps, the boy appears; yet he has his own reality to contend with.
Thus, Paperhouse's major difference from other films about dream states is that Anna can, seemingly, control her own subconscious; rather than fearing sleep, she embraces it, at first, as an alternate world she can command. What's even more magical then, is that the film, aided in no small measure by a wonderfully low budget, never takes Anna away from this single, washed-out setting; it never opens up into an elaborate "world of fantasy," and its eventual terrors come from utterly surprising, and thoroughly upsetting directions. For most of its running time, Paperhouse plays like one of those children-retreating-into-fantasy-world films, although what sets it apart is that it doesn't paint in broad, black-and-white strokes: Anna isn't escaping abuse or real-world terrors so much as normal preadolescent anxieties and parental distrust, and her unspoken fears and hopes play out in abstracted form where no one can see, or hear, or abort them. Unlike the more literal Heavenly Creatures or the deplorably simplistic Pan's Labyrinth, this film doesn't posit the dreamworld as a viable opposition to "real" fears.Rose is careful to never spell out her neuroses, allowing the dreams to fill in the character's blanks. The film respects the odd, insoluble dictates of childhood: often it feels more like the great children's book The Velveteen Rabbit than any film, with its wish fulfillment turned insidious, enacted within the boundaries of a feverish child's bedroom.
Despite these comparisons, when Paperhouse gets scary, it gets scary: in ways both motivationally sound and horribly inexplicable. Imagine this: a silhouette of a man, off in the distance, perched against a darkening night-time sky, his hand clutching an elongated hammer, bellowing "I'm blind!" To describe who he is, how he got there, or where he's going would ruin the experience. Once the images, sounds, and moods from Paperhouse get into your head, they're lodged there permanently--sort of like, it must be said, nightmares from your childhood you never forget.