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The Paperboy Reviews

Behind its unpromising title, THE PAPERBOY proves to be a solid psycho-thriller that successfully evokes both character and chills. The title character is 12-year-old Johnny McFarley (Marc Marut), whose mother has recently died. He murders an elderly neighbor in order to lure her grown daughter, Melissa (Alexandra Paul) back to his Ohio town. A divorced schoolteacher, Melissa arrives for the funeral with her small daughter Cammie (Brigid Tierney), little knowing that Johnny has planted a radio receiver in her mother's house; he's convinced that she would be the perfect mother for him. At first, Melissa is pleased by the attention Johnny gives her and Cammie, but soon becomes put off by his persistent manner. When teenager Brenda (Karen Dwyer) tells Melissa that Johnny spied on her while she was babysitting Cammie, he arranges an "accident" that cripples her. Melissa strikes up a romance with old classmate Brian (William Katt), who becomes the object of Johnny's resentment; later, after conversations with the boy's often-absent father (Barry Flatman) and creepy, elderly neighbor Mrs. Rosemont (Frances Bay), she realizes that Johnny has been abused in the past. Mr. McFarley surprises Johnny with the news that they'll soon be moving, and the enraged youngster kills him. Further mayhem ensues when Johnny overhears Melissa telling Brian that she's arranged a hearing to place the boy in foster care, and that Mrs. Rosemont will testify about his abuse. He frightens the old woman to death, then knocks Brian out at his boathouse and sets the place on fire. Melissa discovers Mrs. Rosemont's body and is lured back to Johnny's house, where the boy attacks her and Cammie. After a violent struggle, Melissa finds his father's body, and realizes Johnny killed his own mother as well. The boy pursues her and Cammie outside, where the police--accompanied by Brian, who has survived the fire--arrive to take Johnny away. While the basic trajectory of THE PAPERBOY's story is fairly predictable, the depth and dimension with which it has been rendered makes the film stand out. Instead of depending on the intrinsic irony of a killer kid to generate chills on its own, director Douglas Jackson (DEADBOLT) and writer David Peckinpah (the late director Sam's nephew) turn Johnny into a fully dimensional character. His apple-pie wholesomeness and eagerness to help are plausible as the psychic defense stategies of an abused child; on a political level, with his All-American Boy facade--"The Eagle Scout has landed," one of Melissa's friends quips--the murderous Johnny can be read as a figure of contemporary white male revanchism. Marut, his still-changing voice cracking into screeches of anger and frustration, makes his transition to violence convincing and compelling. The other characters are intelligently fleshed out as well. Melissa is not the traditional oblivious heroine, but a sympathetic woman whose schoolteacher instincts lead her to help Johnny instead of calling in the authorities. Even Mrs. Rosemont, who at first seems to be a standard-issue neighborhood witch, is given a little more humanity than one might expect. As a result, the scene in which Johnny gives her a fatal heart attack--he pretends to beat her beloved little dog to death--is genuinely scary and disturbing. Indeed, although it's generally obvious who Johnny's targets are going to be, the attacks themselves generate real chills. Throughout, Jackson pulls few emotional punches, even as he largely eschews gratuitous exploitation elements and avoids the glorified TV-movie feel from which so many independent thrillers suffer. The movie looks modest but not cheap, the action scenes are well-staged, and the de rigueur genre elements are given wicked little twists. At the end of an obligatory nightmare scene, for example, Melissa awakens to find herself in an even worse dream--Johnny's in bed with her. THE PAPERBOY is a high point for prolific Canadian thriller specialists Allegro Films, and it's a shame that after playing some theaters in the Great White North, the film was consigned to a direct-to-video fate in the US. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)