Philip (Sean Harris) is a troubled puppeteer with a waning grip on reality, living in his family home with repugnant uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong). While there, Philip adopts a terrifying puppet which triggers a descent into insanity and the manifestation of monsters. Philip then has to cut ties with the puppet to halt his deterioration into absolute delirium.
After expressing his passion for horror (via humour) in classic British TV series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, writer/director Matthew Holness makes a perfect transition into serious genre film-making with this earthy, gothic and unapologetically demented feature debut. Possum is crafted with a colossal love of horror, but the type of which we rarely see on screen. Instead of well-known classics from the era, Possum seems inspired by lesser known, bleak British flicks like The Legend of Hell House, Sleepwalker and Threads, pulp horror paperbacks by Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert and Shaun Hutson (that Holness spoofed so perfectly in Darkplace), and TV series’ like The Day of the Triffids, Tales of the Unexpected and Chimera.
The story stars with an ominous poetry reading and credit sequence recalling the jittery dot matrix computer effects/ scratchy analogue lettering from twisted kids’ TV programmes like The Tomorrow People, The Boy From Space and Dark Towers. From there we are led into a drab, rustic land, dotted with gothic references to Victorian horror. Philip’s world is the perfect fusion of 70s suburban Britain and Gothic/ German expressionist fantasy with austere, dank suburbia tinkering on post-apocalyptic/ dystopia, beautifully captured on 35mm. A sodden charcoal, British sky hangs over Norfolk like a muddy sponge sopping dankness into fantasy, making for an oddly perfect, yet alien landscape to the off-gothic devices.
Sean Harris plays Philip with that inimitable jittery edge, evident in his earlier performances in Creep (2004), Harry Brown and Deliver Us From Evil. His skittish portrayal places the viewer in the position of a detached evaluator slowly being digested by his breakdown. Philip clings to his last scintilla of sanity and he is forced to face his past before exploding into full blown psychosis when his nightmares come alive. This is partly way of Holness’ brilliant writing/directing, but the characters and their manifestations via fantastic acting from both Harris and Alun Armstrong are not the only components that contribute to Possum’s uniqueness. A discordant score by the Radiophonic Workshop augments the screw loosening dread and recalls the kind of music from 70s/80s horror film/ TV without feeling retro or nostalgic.
Amongst the many influences ,the novel concept, fractured characters and excellent performances provide vital sustenance for Possum’s eclectic “inspired by” palette and cranky visual potency. It feels like a fairy-tale corrupted by reality, flourishing into Lovecraftian realms with the DNA of Andrea Arnold and Grand Grimoire, to make for a debut that’s blissfully unique. Holness conjures an original yet primal terror and dread that feels similar to the kind felt when first watching The Wicker Man, Hellraiser and Paper House, yet it is breathtakingly innovative in both its execution and incorporating of puppets into the fusty milieu.
Surrealism simmers along with unease before budding into a terrifying crescendo while the themes of mental illness (and it’s managing) ground Possum in reality. A subplot involving a missing schoolboy also lends worrying weight to the fact that we (as viewers) could be empathising with the wrong kind of protagonist. It is this within the context of 70s British cinema that augments the terror/ surrealist elements, but Possum feels mostly like the mouldy afterbirth of Eraserhead, delivered by The Wicker Man in The Twilight Zone, and cut of the same cloth as those unsettling public information films that haunted British day TV forty plus years ago. David Cronenberg’s Spider also springs to mind.
Not only is Holness’ debut also one of the most unique and creepiest “creature” features in years, but one of the best British horror films ever made: a raw, surreal gem that burns slow before maturing into a heart-raking horror and marks him out as a strong contender for a future genre master. It’s the black rose in a bed of rotting poppies, on the cusp of budding into a Nazi rhododendron, or flesh eating Triffid. What starts as slow, enthralling and disturbing excursion into dank middle England (and the mind of a twitching maniac) soon flourishes into a dark and twisted delirium (the perfect comfort zone for horror fans) before crashing into heart stopping terror for the final third. Possum is a warped horror masterpiece that is striking, frightening, brazenly bizarre and will haunt you long after watching it.
Words: Daniel Goodwin (@privateutopias)