UK Release Date: 26th October 2018
Runtime: 83 minutes
Director: Matthew Holness
Writer: Matthew Holness
Starring: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong
Synopsis: A disgraced former puppeteer with numerous dark secrets and traumas in his past tries to dispose of the titular marionette, but finds that it keeps coming back.
When you think of Matthew Holness, you think of comedy. As the title character in horror homage Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, he became a cult figure and, in his university days, he was part of a Cambridge Footlights class that included David Mitchell, Richard Ayoade, Robert Webb and John Oliver. With his first feature film as writer-director, though, Holness has created something that, in his own words, is “not remotely funny”. That’s certainly an apt description of Possum – one of the year’s bleakest films.
The titular creature, glimpsed only through fleeting glances, is a grotesque marionette created by Philip (Sean Harris) that has the legs of a spider and is the star of a Babadook-esque story told in rhyming couplets. Philip was once a children’s entertainer before an unspecified event caused his career to crash land – Holness has said the movie is inspired in equal parts by Jimmy Savile and the horrifying public information films of the 1970s and 1980s. Now living in a nicotine-stained home with his nicotine-stained uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong), Philip repeatedly tries to dispose of the puppet, with very little success.
Possum is all about atmosphere. It’s a film thick with dirt and dread, to the point that it’s downright unpleasant to watch. Holness consistently succeeds at getting under his audience’s skin with the slow progress of the story and Harris’s blank performance, with his arms permanently hanging limply at his sides. Add to that the score by BBC Radiophonic Workshop, responsible for the music on classic Doctor Who and cult British genre fare like Quatermass, and you have the recipe for something exceptionally creepy.
The creepiness also comes through in the setting. Philip’s home is a triumph of grubby production design and the vast wastelands of seemingly abandoned East Anglian architecture – as well as marshes apparently haunted by a spectral canine – create a real sense of isolation, as if he’s living in some sort of strange purgatory as a result of the sins of his past. There’s also the prospect of more current sins, given the background story of a missing teenage boy, who we see fending off an awkward conversation with Philip in an early scene.
Harris’s performance is nothing short of terrific, with the actor’s intense weirdness more at home in the grey surroundings of this movie and Norfolk-set bedfellow The Goob than he is in the blockbuster world of Mission: Impossible. Alun Armstrong, similarly, is beautifully loathsome as Maurice, who mourns Philip’s puppetry career but otherwise seems to have little affection for his relative. Armstrong’s yellow teeth and grotesque smile are a true atrocity to behold, only enhancing the sense of other-worldly darkness that Holness creates.
With Possum, Holness shows himself as a filmmaker far more interested in tone than he is in story. Many of the film’s threads don’t entirely resolve themselves and it’s all frustratingly opaque in a distinctly unlovable way. With that said, though, the incredible creepiness of the puppet and the all-consuming, oppressive nightmare of the cinematography combines to produce something that is entirely unique and utterly unforgettable. It leaves its grubby fingerprints on your mind for days.
Pop or Poop?
Matthew Holness has firmly shed his comedy roots for Possum, which is a film so dark that even its mother would struggle to love it. Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong deliver complex, unlikable performances as two men isolated in the doldrums of East Anglia, as if being punished for their respective sins. It’s something only a British filmmaker would create, steeped in bleakness and societal darkness. And that puppet is nightmare fuel. Pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.