Matthew Holness – best known as the mastermind behind Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – breaks from tonal expectation with his feature film debut Possum, an ambitiously unpleasant and gorgeously stark film shot on 35mm, adding to the texture of a story that will unsettle you to your core.
Sean Harris – best known as the Mission: Impossible franchise’s recent big bad Solomon Lane – plays Philip, an unemployed puppeteer who returns to an unhappy home where his parents have passed away but his cruel stepfather Maurice (the great Alun Armstrong) remains. Philip’s life seems an endless ladder of torments: Maurice’s mocking, his own grief and loneliness, the mystery of a missing local boy that Possum hints is somehow Philip’s responsibility – and, of course, the truly horrifying puppet of the title.
For the first third of the film, Possum hides Possum from us, like any good monster movie waiting for its big reveal. When we finally get a good look at what Philip’s been lugging around in his ubiquitous leather duffle, we’re not disappointed. Possum is a six-foot spider thing with a blankly ominous human head, and though the remaining screentime isn’t shy about showing him to us, he never loses his impact. He’s a perfect metaphor for the dark places hiding in Philip’s broken mind, a twisted, monstrous burden that never leaves Philip’s side, no matter how he tries to rid himself of it: by fire, by water, by burial. Possum just never stays dead.
On paper, there’s a fairly clear story that unfolds here, but in practice, every narrative advancement is couched in baffling imagery, uncomforting atmosphere and the sort of sound design that instantly transports viewers to a dream state. It’s deeply quiet and still in its way, with the absence of sound almost acting as sound, a hum that goes beyond hearing into feeling. It’s hard to get your hands on Possum – it slips through your fingers just when you think you know what it’s about. It’s not easy to say what makes the film strictly horror, but it feels so nightmarish that to call it anything else would be a mistake.
At times, Possum unfurls as a series of distressing visual vignettes, beautifully lit and bizarre: a cluster of balloons go up in smoke, the limbs of a tree hug Philip’s duffle like the legs of a spider, black rain falls from the sky in inky sheets. And Holness wisely relies on the eternally intriguing contours and contortions of Harris’ face. Somehow an extreme close-up of this good-looking actor can be one of the most vexing images in the film.
Possum has a little something to say about trauma and grief, about the shadows of our past sticking to us wherever we go. It’s a profoundly weird experience, but never feels inauthentic, or weird for weird’s sake. Possum just tells a not-unconventional story in a wildly unconventional way.