Possum, the debut feature film from Mathew Holness, is a decrepit psychological horror indebted to the psycho-thriller hits of the 60’s and 70’s. Ditching the camper, cruder, and more cult-infused merits of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Holness has his sights set on gut-wrenching disturbia, swapping over-dramatic, self-important zaniness, for emotional trauma, child abuse, and schizophrenia. For those expecting charm, and laugh out loud deadpan, maybe give this a miss.
Philip (Sean Harris) is a disgraced children’s entertainer who returns to the family home. There, the traumas of his childhood return to haunt him as he is thrust back under the domineering influence of his Uncle Morris (Alun Armstrong). Not only that, but the nightmarish puppet he performs with starts to take on a life of its own, pushing him closer towards realisations he’s avoided since childhood.
Bringing shady Brit-thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s into the 21st century is actually a perfect fit for Holness’s retro-brand. Without flagrantly namechecking the likes of Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis, Terence Fisher, or even Hitchcock he still evokes their era in a multitude of sly and savvy ways.
The style is a grueling but delicious mix of Lynchian storytelling and cold classic Brit-Noir imagery. The story of a disgraced entertainer trapped with a domineering patriarch feels like an update of the mother/son configuration which appeared so often in Robert Bloch stories. In many ways, Possum is a product of a long-term genre equation; a finely calibrated ode to Holness’ oldest inspirations nicely tweaked for maximum impact in the post- Jimmy Saville landscape.
Cinematographer Kit Fraser (Under the Shadow) flits between stark nightmarish abstraction and the harsh grey location shooting of urban thrillers; the switch between them is often a disorientating clash of subconscious and conscious realization. The result is that Philip becomes an oddly sympathetic figure, swamped by insecurity and plagued by a terror he can’t comprehend. Fraser is a superb talent, and with Possum only the third feature film on his CV, we can’t wait to see where he goes next. Similarly, editor Tommy Boulding is a huge part of that perfectly balanced nostalgic-but-new flavour. His work on Kaleidoscope brought similar Hitchcockian elements to another working class English psycho-drama. On that note, Possum is a thematic twin to Kaleidoscope in every way: where Kaleidoscope looked at the mother/son relationship, Possum looks at the potential horrors of the wicked step-uncle.
Alun Armstrong’s Morris is a nightmarish father figure straight from the Grimm Fairy Tales. He’s a lizard-like creep who lurks in Philip’s nightmares as much he does the flaking corridors of the crumbling family home. A lugubrious slice of medieval terror, too cruel and disgusting for those Sangster-scripts Holness pays lip-service to. Morris is a pitch-perfect contemporary villain.
Design-wise, it’s a great looking film full of fetid colours, degraded mise en scene, and the kind of leery soundtrack which crawls right under your skin. Without spoiling too much, I’ll also attest to the fact Possum sports the creepiest puppet ever put to screen. Nevermind the clown from Poltergeist, Billy from Saw, Annabelle, or anything else you can think of, the Possum Puppet could drive anyone insane.
Sean Harris is an amazing talent and Possum is probably his finest hour so far on a CV crammed with blockbuster appearances and small-time Indy horror projects. His unique features and natural intensity have landed him a heap of parts on the darker side, but rarely is he given any nuance beyond being unbearably intense. Possum positions Harris perfectly, encouraging the audiences natural reaction to his creepiness and then making us sympathise with him in very subtle ways. Essentially, Harris is gifted an opportunity to show his talent, to actively work against the innate disgust an audience will have for his character.
Possum is a pitch-black Gothic drama which unfurls like a Lynchian nightmare. Holness’ debut is a horror film in every respect but one which has such understated talents for terror that it will surprise and shock at a whim, depress at others, and chill from start to finish. Sean Harris owns the runtime, but the production crew deserve equal credit for elevating Holness’ debut beyond the traditional strata of horror techniques. A powerhouse example of British Horror and an explosive debut feature film, not to be missed.
Dir. Mathew Holness
Stars. Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong