Note: I’ll be doing a double-feature this weekend, but won’t be posting those reviews until Monday.
“Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum. Black as sin.“
I like to do a mix of films during 31 Days. Some old, some new, some classics some… less classic. Because I’m generally just picking something on the spur of the moment I do get into ruts – a bunch of 80’s slashers in a row or 70’s Italian films or something. When I find myself doing that I’ll often take a pause and specifically look for something that changes it up. I don’t feel like I’m in a rut yet, but for whatever reason I found myself thinking I hadn’t watched anything really recent yet. So I looked around for a film that I hadn’t seen and that I hadn’t heard a lot about. That’s how I found Possum.
I don’t remember hearing anything about Possum. I really just chose the film because of the poster. This isn’t the best idea, usually – there are some great posters for some crap movies after all (that’s pretty much the 80’s horror movie’s shtick) – but there was something about that bag with the vaguely arachnid legs sticking out of it that kept drawing me in.
Streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s available for rent on the usual places. I believe there’s a DVD out in the US, but the only Blu-ray option is currently in the UK.
The basic plot of Possum is simple enough – Phillip, a disgraced puppeteer, returns to his childhood home where he has to deal with his childhood of traumatic abuse. And his horrifying puppet called Possum.
Phew. Okay, so, this film is… dark. Disturbing. Distressing. A lot of ‘d’ adjectives. The real unpleasantness is often in the things unsaid and undone. In closed doors and empty landscapes and jars of green candies sitting behind distorted glass. And in the tortured expressions of Phillip, played with fearless misery by Sean Harris (most recently seen in the last two Mission Impossible movies).
Phillip is a hard character to like – he’s pale and pinched and stooped and his face constantly expresses a variation of misery, rage, fear and a pathetic blankness. Like his brain just occasionally shorts out leaving him empty, like a puppet with its strings cut or hand removed. An early interaction with a group of schoolboys and subsequent newspaper and TV accounts of a youth gone missing also make for unpleasant juxtapositions. We know Phillip is broken – but how broken and in what way is a distressing undercurrent to the whole film.
As the film progresses we do learn some things. His parents died in a fire when he was a child. He has a fraught relationship with his Uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong), a cruel bastard that forces him to relieve painful memories only so he can laugh at them. He’s also desperate to rid himself of Possum, a puppet which seems to be a result of inexpressible childhood trauma. There’s an old sketchbook full of nightmarish images of a spider-like creature and terrible, nursery-rhyme poetry about black balloons, sin and fingers.
Possum is more full of eerie moments than real horror (beyond the very real horror of childhood abuse and trauma). The house where Phillip and Maurice live is a decaying and dilapidated reflection of their internal life, rotting in ways that we can almost smell. Phillip spends a lot of time in empty lots and landscapes, isolated from everything except for the glimpsed legs of his puppet which just won’t stay where he leaves, buries or burns it. Matthew Holness, who directed to film based on his short story of the same name, leans into the uncanny, the way the everyday can become unfamiliar and frightening. He returns to the same images over and over and the way it’s shot – reminiscent of 70’s UK ‘folk horror’ films – leads us to start looking for meaning in the repetition. For a reason to be as unsettled as we are.
Possum builds slowly, but build it does towards some kind of revelation or break. Possum is restless and his influence infects everything we see and hear. The ending is abrupt, but I’m honestly not sure I could have taken anything else. It would either have been a disappointment or overwhelming.
I think this movie affected me more than it might otherwise because I’ve been reading articles about the so called “haunted generation,” the kids who grew up 1970’s England with a slew of children’s shows and public service films that left them with a feeling of odd disquiet and strangeness. There’s a lot of that look and feel in the film, stuff re-captured in works like the Scarfolk Council ads. If you grew up in the UK in the 70’s you might find the mood of the film uncomfortably familiar.
This is almost a one man show and Sean Harris is a revelation in it. Alun Armstrong is good too, all dingy passive aggression, but Harris manages to walk an extremely thin high wire act. Phillip feels real, and that’s part of the horror.
The Bottom Line
Distressing. Disturbing. Just plain weird. Possum is not an easy film to watch or enjoy, but it IS affecting and creepy. I find myself thinking about it a lot today, in both good ways and bad. I think it’s an excellent film, but it contains a number of elements – child abuse, implied sexual assault, puppets, spiders – that could be triggering so be warned.