Matthew Holness’ Possum is a chilling and effective homage to low-budget British Horrors of the early seventies. A slow burner of a film, which leaves you reeling from the shocking discoveries that unfold, Possum is a strong first feature and it will be worth watching out for what Holness does next.
Starring Sean Harris, and vastly experienced veteran Alun Armstrong, as a tormented puppeteer and his obnoxious uncle, it’s an atmospheric film which leaves the viewer feeling on edge. Although, the film will not to be everyone’s taste, it is certainly a very visual film like The Babadook crossed with Eraserhead, though it lacks David Lynch’s weirdness and Jennifer Kent’s complexed character relationship which is at the centre of their films.
Withdrawn loner Philip (Harris), returns to his childhood home after an unspecified disgrace. Philip is forced confront his wicked stepfather and the secrets that have tortured his entire life. His past demons haunt him, and he seems to carry them around in the form of a monstrous puppet which may or may not have a life of its own. Philip spends most of his time, wandering the bleak Norfolk countryside that surrounds his isolated residence. He seems to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and his situation isn’t helped by the fact that his real human interaction is with his sole surviving relative, Morris, is a twisted, bitter man who take delight in mocking him.
The two of them seem to be holding on to secrets, and as Philip’s condition builds, these secret threaten to come spilling out the ugly truths which they have fought hard to bury. There is also a mystery regarding the fate of a missing schoolboy (Charlie Eales), and it’s implied Philip has possibly kidnapped and murdered while in a fugue state.
Harris turns in his most extreme and demanding performance since Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil (2014). Harris is familiar to international audiences as Ethan Hunt’s antagonist Solomon Lane in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and reprises the role in the follow-up Fallout. He has that strange, loner vibe to him and the director plays on his unusual appearance and body language here. His interactions with Alun Armstrong are enjoyable but also painful to watch at the same time, and as a result you can’t help but side with Harris’ poor and pathetic Philip.
The film’s strengths obviously lie in its two central performances. But the film’s merits should also like with its cinematographer Kit Fraser, who manages to capture the vastness empty void which is the English countryside, by shooting on a Kodak 35mm. Special mention should be made for Charlotte Pearson’s production design of the house, (where the majority of the drama unfolds), which is depicted in nicotine yellows, dirty browns, and coal blacks reflecting the history that has taken place within the four walls.
The film’s ‘Possum’ creature is also memorable, a hideous spider-like puppet the size of a large dog that is only fully revealed at the 25-minute mark in its full monstrous form. The Possum puppet represents all of Philip’s dysfunction and self-loathing, and is the burden which he literally must lug around. He does his best to rid himself of the Possum, but it always find its way back to him, like all repressed secrets, the Possum never truly disappears.
Holness’ screenplay feels a little underdeveloped and sparse in places, and at some points the film feels stuck on repeat. There are times when it feels like Possum would have had its slender narrative better served by a short film. Still, it is worth mentioning that the film certainly has a lot of good points, with an unsettling score by the Radiophonic Workshop, an ensemble of British experimental electronic musicians, adding to the creepy vibe.
The film’s horror turns out to be psychological rather than bodily in nature, but lacks real impact and the film’s conclusion feels rushed. In the end there is very little payoff. Possum‘s atmosphere is well constructed, but Holness’s film never realizes the horrifying final confrontation with Philip’s repressed trauma which is somewhat a let down.