In the bleak wilderness of Fallmarsh, Norfolk, disgraced puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris) returns to his dilapidated childhood home, hellbent on destroying Possum, his cursed spider-like puppet stashed in a leather travel bag. The murkiness of time, memory and mental illness, plague Philip, until he’s forced to confront his monstrous step-father Maurice (Alun Armstrong), and their horrific past unravels into madness.
The pitch-black poetry about a “possum black as soot” twists it’s way through a jangling and discordant soundscape, led by a distant and melancholic pastoral flute open’s Possum, writer-director Matthew Holness’s debut British horror film. Art installation, fairly tale and psychological thriller, Holness prowls in the shadowy abstractions of trauma and childhood abuse, blurring the lines between victim and predator – a grim enigma only a few patient and hardy souls may want to solve.
In a windswept field, we meet Philip frozen to the spot, alone, face contorted in agony, his hand gripping a leather travel bag. It is an unsettling tableau of an isolated man that skitters into childhood regression as Philip surges unsteadily forward into a darken woodland, his thin shoulders stooped and gangly limbs trailing like a lost and introverted teenage boy. And in an eerie copse of trees, Philip slowly unzips the travel bag… large, hairy and boney spider legs jut out, an unspeakable horror given light – Possum, a crude spider-like puppet with a life-casting of Philip’s head attached to its slender and black thorax. But much like the inanimate puppet, Possum feels depressingly dull and lifeless at times.
The story is a two-hander between Phillip and his creepy and, utterly filthy step-father Maurice. Phillip returns to his almost derelict childhood home, under a dark cloud of professional disgrace (suspended from his puppeteering job for unexplained reasons). He seeks to destroy Possum – a symbolic act that will exorcise his half-remembered childhood trauma: dead foxes, burning bedrooms and black balloons, all rattle around Phillip’s fragile mind, stirring up a lo-fi sense of dread with little meaning. Troublingly, the monstrous puppet won’t leave Phillip’s side, “It has a mind of its own”, croaks Uncle Maurice (always prodding at Phillip), and their spiky relationship hints at a much more sinister past, as the simple act of them sharing a cigarette lighter and Maurice blowing out the flame takes on a dark and disturbingly sexual tone.
Unfortunately, Holness’s reliance on jarring repetition to disorientate and unsettle the fabric of Phillip’s almost nightmarish existence, pretty much means he is perpetually staggering around Norfolk’s marshland, woods and an abandoned military base with his travel bag, he unzips it, and kicks the head off his puppet again and again… which slowly becomes more grating than scary.
Under the thick gloom of childhood repression, mental illness and a long beige mac, Sean Harris shines. His muted voice, haunted and expressive face, hunched body, imbues Phillip with the air of a man-child, wrestling with (clearly nurtured) predatory tendencies – through the static of an old TV, the local news leads with a breaking story about a missing school boy. And yet no matter how horrific Phillip’s personal failings might be, Harris skilfully finds a way to humanise the trauma that led the puppeteer to the brink – Phillip goes to his old primary school, crying as he waits on a child’s school chair to speak with the headmaster, ready to unburden himself. It’s an unsettling and touching balancing act (victim and predator) few actors could convincingly portray, Harris’s quiet commitment and intensity is magnetic to watch.
The tug of war between Phillip and Maurice plods toward a grim and inevitable revelation, “Are you going in…?” Maurice’s flemmy voice barks at his step-son (more of an adoption of convenience than of a loving marriage) as he points to an unopened door in the house. Yes, of course he’s going in, after the twelfth time of asking. And yes, you can see the twist through the arty murk and pretentious poetry a mile away… but it’s still a little shocking to be fair.
Possum is a scary, unnerving, pitch-black British horror film. No question. I watched a lady cowering in her seat, peeking through her hands at the screen, totally gripped by terror in the final third of the film. And I would say, more than a few will have the same reaction. I just wasn’t one of them, the overly stilted action, arachnid-like puppet and discordant musical score left me cold, bored and depressed.
If it was Holness’s intention for the audience to decipher the skittish and abstract themes of pedophilia woven throughout the story like a spider’s web and conjure their own parallel narrative to fills in the blanks of Phillip and Maurice’s terrible past: well, my mind just wouldn’t go there. And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.
Terrifying or boring, you’ll only know if you watch Possum and either way you may still end up playing dead.