Possum is like Nicolas Roeg on crack. Convincingly produced in a late-70s British horror style, it often feels like some forbidden VHS artefact found in a waste bin on an industrial estate: an eerie, suffocating slice of audience terrorism. Matthew Holness, co-creator of the legendary Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, has crafted a brutally effective horror – one whose imagery and tone will sear themselves into the brains of those foolhardy enough to watch.
Philip (Sean Harris) is a children’s entertainer with what could be called, mildly, a ‘troubled childhood’. Holness follows Philip’s return to his hometown, and sinister stepfather (Alun Armstrong), to confront demons both literal and metaphorical. Philip, you see, must not only face up to his past, but also possum – the deranged puppet he’s been scaring children with for years. It’s time for possum to be destroyed, but that notion has implications beyond literal interpretation. Meanwhile, a teenager has disappeared – a teenager who was last seen in Philip’s company – and it appears as though the police are closing in; although it’s unclear where he is, and who put him there.
The real reason Possum has such immense staying power is the titular antagonist. The puppet-cum-creature is quite possibly – I don’t say this lightly – the most terrifying horror monster I have been subjected to. There’s an adage that less is more in horror – the more we see a monster, the more we’re likely to normalise it and stop fearing it. But, in Possum, every time the titular thing appears, it’s just as terrifying – if not more so – as the last time. Describing it is a tricky task: it has long, spindly spiders legs; a short body that resembles a disembowelled child; and a gaping, staring, slack-jawed mannequin head. Whenever the camera pans to reveal its presence, chills ran down the back of my spine – the same effect that those slender man pictures had back when they first came to prominence. For the first time since I was a child, my sleep was haunted by images of a movie monster: that dead-eyed face branding my dreams. And, what’s more, we begin to find out that possum’s appearance is vital to the film’s message.
Complementing this demonic presence, Holness paces his movie deliberately – offering little solace or clarity in the narrative until its conclusion. Philip wanders around various environments: his burnt-out childhood home, a dilapidated military base, his old school; all the while tension builds. It’s hard to place what’s going on, or where the narrative is travelling, but it’s clearly going somewhere – somewhere not good. This escalating sense of dread and unease over what’s real and what’s not – we only see what Philip sees – continues right until the film’s end, when it explodes into a visceral, petrifying climax that caused me to involuntarily shout ‘FUCK’ in the cinema.
In terms of production design, the film is a triumph. Director of photography Kit Fraser makes the movie look like a relic of the 70’s – I was reminded somewhat of the faux film-within-a-film of “The Equestrian Vortex” in Berberian Sound Studio. An eerie, low-budget title sequence bathed in murky green wonderfully sets an oppressive, dangerous tone. And The Radiophonic Workshop does an incredible job building an analogue-sounding, alien soundtrack that features plenty of industrial, foreign noise to disorientate and terrify.
It does begin to drag: as a nearly wordless film mostly consisting of a man carrying around a puppet in a duffel bag, it was bound to at some point. For many, as well, the relentlessly bleak, drab tone and ambiguous, puzzle-filled narrative will prove a little too much: you can’t just watch this one and get away with it, it requires your complete attention to be effective. It’s a filthy piece of work: one that wallows in dirt, and sadness, and shame; not for everyone. Yet Possum is an immaculately crafted piece of cinema that evokes a disgusting, scuzzy environment and makes us live in it for an hour and a half. It builds a unique, unpredictable, and psychologically complex narrative amid extreme tension and an oppressive atmosphere. And, most of all, it features some of the most terrifying images of the year: ones that will play, and replay, through your subconscious; things that you’ll see in dark corners of dark rooms; things that still haven’t left me, many days later. I wonder if they ever will.