The Paperboy was released direct-to-video on November 16, 1994. The film stars Marc Marut (Goosebumps), Alexandra Paul (Baywatch), William Katt (Carrie), Frances Bay (In the Mouth of Madness), Brigid Tierney (TVs The Girl Next Door) and was directed by Douglas Jackson from a screenplay David Peckinpah. The story concerns an adolescent paperboy who becomes obsessed with a woman and her young daughter and will do whatever it takes to reach his goal of becoming part of their family, even killing anyone who stands in his way. Without a doubt, the movie was riding on the recent success of the stalker/obsession genre of movies such as The Crush (1993), as well as the popularity of early 90s domestic thrillers ala The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and evil kid flicks like The Good Son (1993) and Mikey (1992).
The Paperboy juxtaposes the common phrase of “in black and white” which, when related to newspapers, means the subject matter is reliable and should be taken as fact. Further, by many definitions, “black-and-white” can mean a clear distinction between good and evil; a concrete explanation. The filmmakers wisely use the opportunity of irony by making The Paperboy deliver a story that explores a wide area of gray.
The Target of a Deadly Obsession
The synopsis found on the back of The Paperboy VHS box makes it clear to viewers that the film’s twelve-year-old antagonist Johnny, played by Marc Marut, will become obsessed with older woman Melissa Thorpe, portrayed by Alexandra Paul. In the movie’s opening scene, Johnny pulls a murderous act that quickly lures Melissa and her young daughter back home where they will be closer to him. The premise seems pretty straightforward, but there is more to the story. A lot more. With the setup in place, more questions are raised than answered… why is Johnny obsessed with Melissa? And why does he pick the Thorpe family to latch on to? Right off the bat, viewers get the impression that things are not so black-and-white.
It is the inner conflict, the force driving Johnny, that blurs the line. At this point in The Paperboy, viewers would not have any idea of Johnny‘s intentions other than the cut-and-dry answer of obsession. Delving a little deeper into the movie, we soon pick up on the plot element that Johnny has targeted the Thorpes because he wants to be part of the their family.
A lot of The Paperboy has a 1950s-era vibe, including Johnny‘s boy-next-door appearance as well as the quaint neighborhood where the story unfolds. At first glance, viewers get the impression that it is the type of place where most things are taken at face value and the traditional family unit is the norm. In sharp contrast, as the number of single-parent households was on the rise in the early 1990s, Melissa is a recent divorcee and is raising her young daughter, Cammie, on her own. It is established in the film that Johnny is also in a single-parent home. His mother is dead, and Johnny lives with his father. This raises the question of whether Johnny has singled out Melissa because he is longing for a mother figure in his life. It would seem like an easy answer, but things are still way more complicated. Johnny‘s infatuation toward Melissa blurs the line. Oftentimes, it appears that he wants more from her.
Straddling the Line Between Two Realities
From early in The Paperboy, it is evident that Johnny is a highly disturbed young man. Through a series of scenes, we get glimpses inside Johnny‘s mental state. At times, the screenplay suggests the idea that Johnny might have split personalities. It is a question that is never fully explored in the film, but, if following that train of thought, one of the two personalities could be the “bad” side of his character. There are instances in the movie where Johnny chastises himself and has sudden bursts of anger about being “bad”. For horror fans intent on viewing the character through a black-and-white lens, Johnny‘s entire being is likely one of evil. But the film stresses there is a sliver of good inside of him, as evidenced in one scene in particular.
In what is one of The Paperboy‘s strangest sequences, Johnny decides it is time to take out one of the neighbors who has just warned the Thorpes against him. SPOILER! During the height of the scene, Johnny terrorizes the character by making her think he is bashing her beloved dog into a pulp. When, in reality, he has let the dog go free. It is an emotional trick at the woman’s expense that leads to her having a fatal heart attack. END SPOILER Two things are most interesting about this scene. One, the scene is a great example of the screenwriter showing that Johnny‘s character is not completely evil. And two, it is also a sign that Johnny has created his own way of understanding right from wrong. He has his own limits, however twisted those ideals might be.
“[…] a clever, if exaggerated, way of portraying split personalities as a disturbed character’s coming-of-age.”
And it is not just the wavering between being “good” and “bad” that Johnny is struggling with. Johnny is twelve years old, an age where he is just beginning to discover his sexuality. Johnny stands on the thin line between being a kid or being a young adult. Throughout The Paperboy‘s running time, Johnny wavers in and out of childish wants and needs and that of his recently discovered sexual attraction to Melissa. All of this is a clever, if exaggerated, way of portraying split personalities as a disturbed character’s coming-of-age.
Marut’s portrayal of twelve-year-old Johnny is good. In some of the scenes, Marut’s voice cracks as he is confronting Melissa and the other characters. Regardless of whether or not the tenor is part of Marut’s acting or if it is real because of his age at the time of filming, the pubescent change in voice is a nice touch to the final cut and makes Johnny‘s character more believable, serving as a reminder of where he stands between two realities. It is the weaving of the opposing threads of “good” and “bad”, the drastic differences in two time periods, and the delicate age of early adolescence that proves to be one of the film’s strongest points.
Looking For a Clear-Cut Reason
Characters in The Paperboy, primarily the elderly “witch” woman of the town, Mrs. Rosemont portrayed by Frances Bay, look for a simple, straightforward answer to Johnny‘s evil shenanigans. The woman offers an initial answer that clearly divides good from evil. She says that Johnny has the Mark of Cain. Not much later, Mrs. Rosemont‘s reasoning for Johnny‘s behavior eventually spills into a slightly more convoluted one that involves an abusive mother and a neglectful father. As Mrs. Rosemont, Bay delivers the lines in such a way that shows her character truly believes Johnny‘s evil actions can be explained so simply. The scene hints at the long running debate on whether a killer’s behavior is contributed to nature, nurture, or a combination of the two.
Oftentimes in horror and thriller movies when a villain’s backstory is explained in this manner it serves as a definitive answer. In The Paperboy there doesn’t seem to be a direct link from those past events to what Johnny does during the course of the film. Viewers are left to fill in some blanks as to the reasons why. I think it is Johnny‘s “adult” desire that drives his evil actions. The hint of a “split personality” is Johnny‘s descent into madness, a glimpse into the man he will become. Johnny sees an opportunity with single mother Melissa and decides to act on it. In his own twisted agenda, he believes that through her he will be able to achieve his idea of a perfect family, something that he has lacked for so long. The “adult” version of Johnny isn’t looking for a mother figure. Instead, he wants to become Melissa‘s husband and father to her child, filling what he sees as void in their life and ultimately (in his own mind) completing the Thorpe family.