Writer and director Matthew Holness first conjured up Possum as a short story to be included in an anthology on Freud’s Uncanny (Das Unheimlich), the phenomenon described as “strangeness in the ordinary”. A slow and steady swirling, creeping dread envelopes the entire film, just like one of its first defining images: that of black smoke, enveloping children’s balloons - the tainting of innocence.
Philip (Sean Harris) returns to his dilapidated childhood home in a bleak area of Norfolk, greeted by his grotesque uncle/stepfather Maurice (Alun Armstrong) armed with a mysterious brown holdall. Inside is a horrifying, almost Dadaist physical embodiment of Philip’s darkness, and the film concerns itself with the mental state of Philip dealing with an unexplained trauma from his past.
Despite presenting one of the most original and inventive depictions of the Uncanny in the form of the actual puppet, “Possum”, the human aspects of the story are the most unbearable. Regardless of the topic of child abuse and what Holness describes as its “crude overfamiliarity”, Possum shows that the real horrors of what humans can do to one another is an almost neverending fountain of morbid fascination. Whilst being a horror movie about a human monster and the damaged mind, Holness deals with the subject sensitively, instead of traversing into the arena of exploitation. We get to explore how, just as Possum dies and continues to come back, the psychological effects of abuse can never fully gain closure.
In this vein, with Philip in a prison of the past, so too is the setting: the house is steeped in 1970s decor, and scenes even involve Philip winding up back at his old school. The sense of abandonment is felt throughout, with Philip completely alone in the horrors of his mind. We are in Philip’s head from the beginning, yet the heavy silence of the film also allows distance, as at the same time we are never fully sure whether Philip is victim or monster.
Possum excels in ways some horror doesn’t. It strikes the nerve between horror and emotion, between wanting to cry and wanting to scream. Sean Harris’ face is like a work of puppetry itself, a frown permanently etched or frozen in place, a constant inability to make eye contact. His trauma lives on his face.
It also invokes the ways in which children use metaphors and symbolism to try to make sense of things happening to them, with an insight into how Philip has comprehended his parents death and his abuse through the mask of the surreal. The sweets that Maurice feed to Philip make you think of the oft-repeated warning given to you as a child to “not take sweets from strangers”. Freudian metaphors work in unexpected ways - spiderlegs standing in for creepy fingers, and how both Maurice and Philip are puppeteers, making you think about the cyclical nature of abuse.
The ending of Possum feels as raw and feral as any first-time viewing of a video nasty without being particularly violent at all, or showing any blood. It’s a work of creeping revulsion that leaves you feeling stunned and traumatised, ultimately confronting you with truths that feel all too real.
POSSUM / DIRECTOR: MATTHEW HOLNESS / SCREENPLAY: MATTHEW HOLNESS / STARRING: SEAN HARRIS, ALUN ARMSTRONG, SIMON BUBB / CERT: TBC / RELEASE DATE: TBC