Thursday 25 October 2018, by
Matthew Holness, perhaps best known as the creator of cult pastiche television horror comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, makes his debut as a feature director in much darker territory with Possum. Originally a short story written by Holness in response to Freud’s essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (The Uncanny), Possum takes us to the near-deserted fenlands of Norfolk, where Sean Harris’ Philip, a children’s puppeteer, has returned to his run-down, boarded-up family home. He carries with him a compact leather bag, inside which the titular Possum is contained. Rather than the small furry Australian mammal initially brought to mind by the title, it is instead a manifestation of Philip’s worst fears, initially seen just off-screen as a bundle of spindly, spider-like legs, and later revealed to be a strange hybrid of spider and man, a body-less creature with a human head. Philip is haunted by this mutated spider-man throughout the film, its mask mirroring his own features, in a permanent dark-eyed, tortured expression. Also at the family home is Maurice, Philip’s Uncle, played with understated menace by veteran actor Alun Armstrong. Uncle Maurice is a malevolent, nicotine-fingered presence throughout the film, goading Philip to show him his puppetry skills using The Possum, as well as referring to a recent scandal Philip is evidently fleeing from and taunting him to retell a particularly painful memory from his childhood about the death of a fox.
Holness is clearly an aficionado of British horror in the 1960s and 70s, both on film and television, as well as early silent films such as Nosferatu and M. The opening credits, the British Rail station with its antiquated signage and slam door trains, as well as an eerie electronic soundtrack courtesy of The Radiophonic Workshop, all evoke a sense of 70s British horror director Pete Walker’s Frightmare or Dr Who (late member of The Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire - who died in 2001 - is credited with "additional sound design elements.") The dilapidated family home calls to mind The Overlook hotel, with its garish patterned, faded orange and brown furnishings. Along with a deserted Army Cadet barracks, and the school Philip attended long ago, these largely empty locations start to represent Philip’s inner state, where he is simultaneously in the present yet haunted by a lonely past, unable to escape his own experiences.
Both disturbing and scary, Possum and is an assured debut from Holness, anchored by strong performances from both Harris and Armstrong. Harris’s central performance hearkens to those of the silent era, his character largely wordless throughout the duration of the film. Harris, who always brings a sense of unnerving, lived-through darkness to his roles, brings the same sense of unresolved trauma here. Philip is simultaneously a trapped child and a traumatised man, unable to reconcile with his past and fully move into adulthood. As the film progresses, it becomes clear what is manifested in the disturbing, unrelenting figure of the Possum. Despite Philip’s best efforts to destroy it through drowning, burning or beating it to death, it returns again and again to haunt him and chase him until he finally confronts what it represents, perhaps by which time it is too late, in a harrowing final scene.
Possum will be released in cinemas on 26 Oct. There will be Q&A screenings in Edinburgh and Glasgow on 2nd and 3rd November.