Part [The] Babadook and part David Lynch fuelled nightmare, Matthew Holness’s directorial debut, Possum, is as bleak and oppressive as psychological horror gets. Unfortunately, I get the impression that Holness would’ve been better suited turning Possum into a portmanteau film rather than a feature of its own. And that’s fine, this is a debut after all, so maybe he will go on making a meatier sophomore film next time out. But I watched Possum on a cold and dreary Saturday night, and I have to say, the film didn’t leave much of a lasting impact on me. And that’s a problem I never want to have with a psychological horror, with films like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby, what both films are good at is that they invite you into a welcoming environment from the start, and then slowly turns into something violent, nasty, and terrifying as the plot progresses.
Right from the opening ten minutes, Possum is as dank and miserable throughout the entire film. The film’s protagonist, Philip (Sean Harris) is a disgraced children’s puppeteer. He returns to his home in Norfolk to live with his wicked stepfather, Maurice (Alun Armstrong), the abusive figure behind Philip’s mental instability. And all of Philip’s fears are entombed within his least favourite childhood puppet, Possum, an ugly arachnid monstrosity with a mannequin’s head. Both Maurice and Possum nibble away at Philip’s anguish, and to add more insult to injury, soon after Philip arrives at Maurice’s doorstep, a 14-year-old boy vanishes from plain sight. Maurice ponders whether Philip has anything to do with the disappearance, and Philip could say the same thing about Possum.
Something about Possum’s plot doesn’t hook me. As the audience, we are catapulted into Philip’s broken life without a word of warning by the start of the film, and it doesn’t get any happier from there onward. I felt there was too much dark content for the film to handle, and what doesn’t help matters is Philip’s compulsive behaviour. Harris repeats the same few actions of silently wandering the post-apocalyptic countryside, not speaking at all, and refusing to show his emotions to anyone. So Possum’s repeating cycle of a plot becomes cumbersome and tiring after a short while. Since we are stuck in Philip’s seemingly never-ending situation, Possum feels much longer than 84 minutes as a result.
You may think to yourself isn’t that the point of the film? To show you how both the puppet and Maurice has rendered Philip into a mindless zombie from the repeating horror? If Possum was a short film, then I would be more accepting of the plot structure. As is though, Possum is a short film stretched into a feature, and to me, that’s the film’s biggest weakness. Since most of the film consists of Philip trapped in his damp and bare bedroom, or him traversing the outside world, past dilapidated buildings and structures that looked like they once belonged in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the film loses my interest too many times to count because he doesn’t really do anything other than be a victim. The plot repetitions dilute the horror, therefore, there is far too much dead air in Possum.
And that’s a shame because Possum’s craft is excellent. The cinematography by Kit Fraser, the same Director of Photography behind Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, amplifies Holness’s dour vision. Possum has overgrown gardens, desolate army barracks, yellow apartments, every locked down location looks appropriately scuzzy for Philip’s character. The Radiophonic Workshop’s dissonant soundtrack adds a layer of tension, and finally, Alun Armstrong’s performance as the greasy yet sinister Maurice is chilling. Throw all these elements into the witch’s cauldron, and you have a claustrophobic nightmare as told through the eyes of an introvert. Look under the grubbiness though, and Possum is undercooked as a psychological horror film, unfortunately.
POSSUM IS OUT NOW FROM SPIRIT ENTERTAINMENT