Facing His Own Horrors
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer James DC takes a a look at new British indie horror film Possum…
Writer/director: Matthew Holness
Stars: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong
In cinemas now
Philip (Sean Harris) is a shambolic, melancholic, oddball-looking loner, who returns to his childhood home in an undisclosed, semirural and isolated part of Britain. He is there, it seems, to confront his past demons and his elderly, antagonistic, fag-butt reeking stepfather, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who still lives alone in the decrepit, nigh empty house. Philip constantly carries around with him a bizarre, eerie puppet, known as ‘Possum’, comprised of a dead-eyed, human type head, with long spidery appendages protruding from it. Sometimes this wicked talisman seems to come to life. Whilst hypnotically roaming around the chilly woods, fields and deserted environs, Philip enacts strange rituals in order to placate, or possibly exorcise, his symbiotic familiar. Is Possum a ‘real’, demonic entity, or simply an illusory, mental manifestation of Philip’s disturbed childhood?
After a series of scary, reality-shaking nightmares involving Possum, Philip loses his patience and tries to kill the ‘creature’, first trying to drown it, then stuffing it down a wood-burning barrel and setting alight to it. But each time it somehow comes back to life, continuing to harass and torment Philip, both in his dreams and his waking life. Adding to the evil events is the spectre of a local child molester who is a dead ringer for Philip. As the strange and increasingly diabolical occurrences mount, Philip’s stepfather becomes more and more unhinged and violent, leading to a dark, revelatory confrontation.
Director Mathew Holness was the main force behind one of the most sophisticated and hilarious TV comedies of the last 30-odd years: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. This knowing spoof of ’70s/’80s TV horror cliches was shown in the UK on Channel 4 back in the early 2000s, and has since become a genuine cult classic, still relatively unknown and woefully underrated. Apart from the odd project here and there, Holness has kept pretty quiet since then; this is his first feature film, and many of the horror tropes which were so mercilessly torn apart in Garth Marenghi are here regurgitated, except in a deadly serious and decidedly unnerving manner.
Possum is all about creepy atmosphere – and all the better for it. It is more in keeping with the deft, ‘domestic’ minimalism of ’60s/’70s psychological horror, like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Robert Altman’s Images (1972), as well as David Cronenberg’s later, but in a similar vein, Spider (2002), than with the hyperbolic, portentous, jump scare clichés of today’s horror blockbusters. Obviously pulled in on a tight budget, Possum is nevertheless more than the sum of its parts, evoking a wintry, desolate kitchen-sink realism which foreshadows the few, yet startling, hallucinatory sequences, in juxtaposition. The pacing is stately and low-key for much of the running time, but this simply adds to the tension, keeping us gripped throughout, and when things start going haywire, such a slow burn build-up pays dividends; we experience the shattering climax even more viscerally. Philip’s haunted, ritualistic perambulations are as much about his fractured, inner mental state as they are about any external, supernatural events, and it is this spooky ambiguity which the film nimbly balances astride.
As with all the best horror, there are some intriguing questions of morality here: there are allusions as to what possible type of abuse the child Philip had undergone at the hands of his deranged family: is he now an abuser himself, prowling the moors, along with his surrogate protector/tormentor, in order to expurgate his sins? Or is he an innocent attempting to mentally flee from past atrocities? How much should we sympathise with him, or is he as much of a monster as his grotesque ‘comfort’ puppet? He may look and act like a lunatic, but does this necessarily mean he is psychotic – are we simply falling back on easy biases? All of these themes and undertones are subtle enough not to inveigle their way too strongly to the forefront, and Holness’s bare script thankfully keeps things simple, but stark and effective; he knows how to create a lot of the suspense purely visually.
Sean Harris (better known as the creepy villain in the last two Mission Impossible movies) brilliantly portrays a mind on the brink of utter madness, second only to Ralph Fiennes’ sweaty, finicky, obsessive turn in the aforementioned Spider. At first incredibly stiff and unresponsive, as Philip’s quixotic, cathartic quest to break free from his twisted codependency with Possum gathers pace, his facial tics and body gestures begin to perfectly mirror the increasing fragmentation of his mind. If there were any justice to the sham of modern film awards, he would receive an Oscar, or at least a BAFTA, for his nuanced, near-palpable performance. And the ever dependable Alun Armstrong offers up a grimy, caustic and nasty manipulator, worthy of Fagin himself.
Sure, there are a few moments when the film seems to be going nowhere, and you would be hard-pressed to call Possum in any way ‘radical’. We have seen much of this before, in different permutations, over the years. But perhaps that is the point; in a genre which has grown increasingly tired and repetitive, finding it harder each time to come up with something entirely original, Holness’s ambition was to keep it simple and minimal – to produce a highly finessed variation on a theme, a part homage to past classics, whilst a hybrid of personal influences and obsessions, with some fresh, invigorating flourishes thrown in. In that sense, he has succeeded magnificently. I look forward to his next feature, which hopefully will be in the horror genre, once again.