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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.25.18] horror drama



Writer/director Matthew Holness's debut feature Possum is a psychological horror film adapted from his own short story of the same name. What the film is about is as important as how it is about - it's a film with atmosphere, steeped in feelings of dread and despair.

The plot involves a disgraced, brow-beaten puppeteer named Philip (Sean Harris), who returns to his abandoned and dilapidated childhood home to make peace with his past, and to destroy his grotesque puppet, 'Possum', which he carries around in a brown leather holdall. Neither of these tasks proves easy.

Holness is an actor, director and writer whose career has until recently primarily been in comedy. I remember seeing his Edinburgh Fringe shows (the second of which won the Perrier Award in 2001) as a teenager and finding them hysterically funny. His character, Garth Marenghi, an egotistical, talentless British horror novelist ("I'm one of the few authors who's written more books than I've actually read.") was the basis for the comedy television series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace in 2004, a show that still enjoys cult status and which filmmakers such as Astron-6 frequently site as a source of comic inspiration.

This film is not a comedy. From its opening scenes Possum announces itself as a dark character study, the story dealing in themes of abuse, mental illness, obsession and guilt. The setting is a small suburb in the rural north of England, the kind of place in which 1970s prefabricated Vic Hallam buildings and long-abandoned factories haunt a desolate landscape. We watch Philip travel by train to this depressing, near-deserted little town, and on arriving at his former home, he discovers that a man named Maurice (Alun Armstrong) still lives there. They hold a muted, vaguely hostile conversation regarding Philip's intentions for visiting, and his recently stalled career as a puppeteer.

We learn that Philip's creation, 'Possum', has led to his being fired as an entertainer. "You really showed that thing to children? Are you going to kill it?" asks Maurice. "You can't kill it, it's a puppet," replies Philip. And how right he is. As Philip repeatedly attempts to dispatch Possum, the vile thing somehow keeps finding its way back to him. As the story progresses, we slowly learn more about Philip, Maurice, and Possum, and how they connect to one another.





As I write this I'm aware that for the last two days I've been repeating in my head the spooky little rhymes which Philip makes up about his puppet, "Can you see him, deep within? Little Possum. Black as sin." I'm scared to go to the bathroom at night in case I see the hideous shape of a spider leg extending from a doorway, or catch a glimpse of something scuttling in the darkness outside the window. I think It's safe to say this film has stayed with me.

The design of the puppet is inspired and extremely upsetting, but I won't go into details. It is used sparingly but effectively to create a profound sense of unease and dread, whether hanging limp in Philip's tiny bedroom, or splayed out in a patch of wasteland as he stares at it mournfully. We kind of want it to come alive, but at the same time, we really hope it won't...

The mystery surrounding Philip's damaged psyche, how Maurice and Possum fit into this, is the essential story here, but the film's narrative is unconventional to say the least. It contains shades of Cronenberg's Spider in its portrayal of a paranoid, broken soul, with revelations appearing in fragments, and much left to the viewer to interpret - and this, I think, is a strong point. For much of the film I wasn't sure whether the Maurice character was real or somehow imaginary, but then I realised that this wasn't important - only the fact that Philip sees him. It's the same with Possum. We see what Philip sees, and it won't always make sense to us right away.





It's a knock-out performance from Sean Harris. He clearly understands the character and has thrown himself into this role, and there are some very unforgiving scenes, both physically and emotionally. Few actors can project anxiety-ridden vulnerability alongside sinister menace in quite the way as Harris can, and he does an excellent job here.

There is virtually no warmth or hope in Philip's sad and strange life. Even a visit to his former school ends on a depressing note. He stumbles through his childhood home, haunted by tragic memories, sometimes tramping through the wilderness with Possum packed in his case, searching for a way to unburden himself of this terrible creation.

The soundtrack, scored by the Radiophonic Workshop (Quatermass, Doctor Who), moves from haunting flutes to intense, grinding synths, reminiscent of British horror and sci-fi from the '70s - an era clearly and successfully evoked by the style and direction of this film. In the world of Possum, a crumbling concrete shed sitting next to a rusted pylon somehow takes on a terrifying significance.

I cannot recommend this film enough to anyone looking for unusual and creative horror cinema. While Holness's roots may be in comedy, creating affectionate and kitschy spoofs of Guy N. Smith-style paperbacks, there is a clear passion for the best elements of British horror on display here too. Possum is at once poignant, disturbing, and very difficult to forget.

For anyone interested in checking out Holness's similarly bleak and effective 2012 short film 'The Snipist', starring Douglas Henshall and John Hurt, you can watch it for free here:



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