There is a man with a bag. Inside that that bag is a puppet. The man does not want the bag, nor the puppet. But try as he might he cannot rid himself of the bag. He fears it. For the puppet, black as sin, lies within. This is Possum.
The film debut of director Matthew Holness’, Possum stars Sean Harris (Prometheus, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) as Philip. A former puppeteer, Philip returns to his childhood home in Norfolk after an unexplained scandal puts him out of a job. He brings nothing with him but a duffel bag, inside which lies the puppet, Possum. Every day he’s home, Philip tries to abandon Possum but in this world there are things you can’t let go of, and things that won’t let go you. Each morning the puppet returns looking grislier than the last. When a young boy goes missing, the police suspect that Philip may be involved. Hunted and alone, Philip is forced to answer whether Possum is the puppet, or the puppeteer.
“… the sort of old world horror you’d find tucked between the pages of an original Grimm fairy tale.”
At its core, Possum is a character study of a broken man. The character we see in Philip is a pained and stunted creature. Throughout the film Philip encounters few people in his wanderings, only to repel them with his quiet aura of desperation. It only takes a few moments with Philip to feel uncomfortable, which prologues the character’s isolation. The longer he goes without meaningful contact the more he regresses into himself, until what we see on screen isn’t a man, but a cowering child.
Philip’s only real connection comes in the form of his aged Uncle Maurice, played with lecherous deftness by Alun Armstrong (Krull, Penny Dreadful). The old man delights in tormenting Philip. He prods at every emotional wound with nicotine stained fingers, gleefully ripping off the scabs so that Phillip’s pain can flow freely. It’s through their few exchanges we learn much of Possum‘s plot, but thanks to the cutthroat script the film never loses its air of uncertainty.
Much of Possum is left to the viewer to decipher. The film is presented in a purposely disjointed manner that blurs the border between reality and nightmare. As Philip roams the countryside the film drifts in and out of reality. Black rain falls from overhead, drenching Philip in ichor, while yellow balloons are engulfed in smoke. And of course, there’s little Possum. A cross between a spider and an anatomical model, the eponymous puppet looks like the sort of old world horror you’d find tucked between the pages of an original Grimm fairy tale.
While grounded in reality, it’s Philip‘s nightmares where Possum truly lives. For whenever Philip closes his eyes, it’s the creeping legs of Possum he sees. In the form of hallucinatory visions, Possum compels Philip to confront a past that cannot be thrown away. He is caught in a web of traumas whose origin we only get hazy glimpses of. All that we see are their shadows, and the nightmares they inspire. It’s a tale of isolation and silence, where the loudest noises are the ones inside Philip‘s head.
“…a modern take on the classic gothic haunted house, spread out across an entire town.”
Philip is the lens through which we see the world, and that world is rotting at its core. Most of the film consists of Philip wandering from one scene of urban decay to another, his leather duffel bag in tow. From his dilapidated home to the crumbling halls of an abandoned army barrack, the streets of Norfolk are shown as a depressed industrial wasteland. The town is haunted by the shadows of its past, while skeletal buildings stand as monuments of better days. It’s a modern take on the classic gothic haunted house, spread out across an entire town.
Possum wears its German expressionist influences on its sleeves. The starkly de-saturated landscapes call back to the black and white horrors of the silent era, with long shadows twisting their way through every nightmare. If we are to believe that the environment is a reflection of Philip’s psyche, then his mind is a splintered, dirty thing. Combined with the natural grain of 35 millimeter, and you have a film that feels worn out and tired in the very best way.
Just how much of a role Philip plays in the disappearance of the missing boy hangs around the film like a noose. As much we want to sympathize with Philip, there’s something about him that’s naturally repulsive. Sean Harris fully inhabits this role, creating a character who walks the line between vulnerability and psychosis. We see him lurking outside a school, silently watching an empty playground. Whether or not we’re following simply a tortured soul or a sexual predator is kept deliberately obscured. The result is a canvas painted in shades of grey. Possum lives in this greyness, and uses it to create a film steeped in unease. Philip‘s past is a mystery, and yet the echoes of sexual violence permeate the film.
By Possum‘s end these mysteries are resolved, yet days after viewing it I’m still thinking about this movie. It’s not afraid to explorer the darker recesses of humanity, and shines a light on those sad souls caught in them. It’s hard to believe that this is Holness’s first feature length horror film. While Possum is based on a short story written by Holness, he is best known for his work in comedy including the cult classic television series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. A metatextual parody, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace presented itself as new release on an unaired horror series from the 80’s. Complete with new cast interviews, the show lampooned the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz while creating something wholly original. In Possum, Holness has brought that same energy to a new genre, creating a bleak film experience unlike any other.