Written & Directed by Matthew Holness
Horror is not a monster wanting to eat you or a masked killer wielding a knife. Horror is the inability to trust your own mind, the lines between reality and subconscious terror blending so that your waking hours are swallowed up by fear. What adds to that is the inability to express what is happening inside your mind so that these traumatic experiences become a mire, in which you drown alone, unheard & unseen. This is the horror writer-director Matthew Holness brings us in Possum. Holness is best known for his comedy series Garth Merenghi which offered a silly take on retro-horror. Here there is no humor to cut through the darkness, we must bear witness to it.
Phillip is a troubled man who has returned to his childhood home, where his decrepit Uncle Morris lives. The house is in disrepair, rotting away like the old man. Phillip has become a puppeteer and was recently caught up in a scandal after performing to a group of school children. The details are never given, but we can infer it was connected to his grotesque puppet, Possum. This creature resembles a spider with a human head for its body. Phillip finds himself always trying to rid himself of Possum, but the puppet just keeps popping back up. Life begins to spiral downward when Phillip is implicated in the disappearance of a local boy, something he had no memory of.
Matthew Holness has put a lot of time and thought into Possum, which started as a short story. When he began working on ideas for a film Holness knew he wanted to reference visually expressed psychological horror of silent cinema. The German Expressionists specialized in this sort of fare in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, just to name a few. He came back to his short story and saw it as a perfect piece to adapt to this type of film. As a result, Sean Harris, who plays Phillip, gives a nearly wordless performance, the story being told through the actor’s face and physical reactions as well as the often surreal images on the screen.
Holness’ account of filming Possum are incredibly interesting, speaking about filming in Sitffkey marshes in Norfolk, which are reported to be haunted, he expressed feeling a sense of darkness on those shooting days. The final sequence of the film, which packs a hefty emotional punch, was the hardest to shoot in the director’s opinion. But as heavy and bleak as the film is, Holness insists that it is in those heightened moments that the truth of the characters comes out.
Sean Harris was so immersed in the role of Phillip, having been a student of the Stanislavsky method, that Holness said he felt that he was speaking to the character and never the actor during filming. To push things even further, Harris and Alun Armstrong, who plays Uncle Morris, never interacted off-camera as a way to create the tension that needed to exist between them. This level of dedication to the craft shows on screen and helps make Possum such an anxious & unnerving picture.
The look of Possum is inspired by British public information films of Holness’ youth. These were shorts aimed at the youth to inform them of important matters of safety and public health. What causes them to still linger in the minds of the children that saw them is their tone. In an attempt to frighten children into behaving, the films have an eerie, unsettling atmosphere. The music and grainy film stock position them as unintentional horror films, often the first exposure to the genre for many kids at the time. If you look some of them up on YouTube, you’ll see they still hold up as slow-burning mood pieces.
Despite being crafted with so much care, Possum meanders often. I really wanted this to be a movie I loved, but I think a tighter focus was needed. There are many redundant scenes of Phillip wandering the marshes and woods that don’t add anything to the overall picture. I am fine if Holness didn’t want this picture to be about plot beats, but it was hard to understand what he wanted the audience to gain from certain scenes that they couldn’t have in previous ones. Holness does manage to capture a particular style of horror, one that is criminal underexplored. He is most certainly dedicated to creating thoughtful cinema about the human psyche, and despite the things I disliked about Possum, I’m excited to see what he does next.