Paperhouse (1988), directed by Bernard Rose from a script by Matthew Jacobs, based on the book Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. Starring Ben Cross, Glenne Headley, Charlotte Burke, Gemma Jones, and Elliot Spiers.
Anna (Charlotte Burke) is a bratty eleven-year-old British girl who often gets in trouble at school. Her father (Ben Cross) is away working on oil projects around the world and Mum (Glenne Headley) can’t cope with being essentially a single parent. Anna is angry that Dad is away so much, but she can’t really put her anger into words.
Then Anna starts having unexplained fainting spells. While unconscious, she experiences a type of lucid dreaming, in which she finds a strange house in an isolated field. The house looks just like one she drew in class, with skewed lines and tilted, odd-sized windows. When she later draws a face in one of the upper windows, a boy appears in the window and talks to her from it. She wants to visit him inside, but he explains that there’s no stairs in the house to his room. She draws stairs inside the house when she wakes up, and the next time she has a fainting spell, she finds she is able to climb to the boy’s room and visit him. He tells her his name is Marc (played by Elliot Spiers) and he can’t walk because his legs are paralyzed.
As the story unfolds, Anna draws more things so that Marc can have toys and food, although occasionally she screws up. For instance, she draws him with a pair of working legs, hoping it will allow him to walk, but that doesn’t work. She draws him a funky soft-serve ice cream machine, but forgets to add cups or cones or spoons, so he can’t eat it. (She also draws him plenty of other food treats to eat, but she doesn’t draw a toilet so he can expel the waste from his food. This issue isn’t addressed in the film, but it hangs over those scenes like a big cartoonish question mark.)
One day, in the awake world, Anna develops a high fever and is sent to bed. A visiting doctor named Sarah Nichols (Gemma Jones) diagnoses Anna as having “glandular fever,” which Americans know as mononucleosis. Anna must stay in bed for at least a month; she continues to draw and pass out, visiting the boy in the strange house regularly.
During Dr. Nichols’s checkup visits, Anna learns of another patient that the doctor treats at home: a boy her age named Marc, who is bedridden and crippled with muscular dystrophy. Anna starts to believe that she’s been communicating somehow with the real Marc subconsciously in the strange, dream house.
Things get scary when Anna draws her father into the house scene, but she messes up and scratches out his face. The next time she visits the house, her father is an angry, blind monster who stalks and threatens Marc and Anna, bringing on a creepy, suspenseful climax.
Headley (Tess Trueheart in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy) puts on a British accent to play Anna’s weary and lonely mother. Both child actors are very good; sadly Burke didn’t pursue an acting career after this one credit, and Spiers died only a few years after Paperhouse was released. Bernard Rose is the director of the excellent 90s horror film, Candyman, starring the great Tony Todd.
The fantasy scenes are well done and don’t shriek “primitive 80s CGI.” In fact, this film, though more than thirty years old, doesn’t seem dated at all. It’s a dark, poignant child’s fable about friendship, loss, and redemption that appeals to children and adults alike. It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime, free to members.