Nerve-shreddingly tense, atmospheric and exquisitely crafted, “Possum” is an artisanal horror movie, the craft of both cast and crew shining through in every detail.
When a disgraced children’s puppeteer is forced to return to his childhood home, he must confront his wicked stepfather and the secrets which have haunted his entire life, personified by his malevolent spider-legged puppet ‘Possum’.
Writer/ Director Matthew Holness (“Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”), making his feature debut, has crafted a superbly disturbing psychological drama, steeped in the aesthetic of 1970s public information films with a dash of German expressionism and a strikingly discordant atmosphere of paranoia and confusion. Weaving in snippets of some past trauma, possible survival guilt, mental illness and potentially abuse, Holness keeps his characters and their motivations ambiguous and opaque, drawing us into the fractured mindscape of Philip (Sean Harris) and trapping us there in its oppressive confusion and desperation. Meanwhile, background details clue us into a recent child abduction and with each passing minute, we become less and less sure of the nature of Philip and his stepfather Maurice (Alun Armstrong), what they know and what they have done.
Elements of “Possum”, especially in Philip’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality, bring to mind a kind of Babadook Fight Club (although any similarities with Jennifer Kent’s breakthrough horror are purely coincidental as “Possum” was written before “The Babadook” was made) and the puppet itself, often only glimpsed is pure, uncut nightmare fuel.
At the beating black heart of the film is a pair of astonishing performances from the two lead actors. Alun Armstrong is grimy and grotesque, a warped parody of what a parental figure should be as he lurks in the decrepit home like a malignant tumour, psychologically manipulating Philip in a chilling thematic echo of the theme of puppetry throughout the film. Sean Harris, though, is astounding. A ferociously committed performance, Harris delves deep into the troubled mind of the character, imbuing him with decades of hurt and psychological scar tissue and infusing his movements with an awkward jerkiness that lends Philip a physicality that suggests he himself is merely a puppet in the cruel world he finds himself in.
The intense psychological drama plays out against the bleak, windswept vistas of Norfolk and the viscerally authentic setting of Philip’s childhood home, dank, decaying and corrupted by the lingering spirits which seemingly infest its walls. The house interior, by Production designer Charlotte Pearson, is genuinely one of the most important characters in the film, possibly even more so than Possum him/ herself and the whole production is enclosed by an incredible score from The Radiophonic Workshop.
“Possum” is a remarkably assured, complex, confident and intense piece of cinema. It’s a world away from the slick, jump-scare shock tactics that make up the majority of horror offerings, but if your tastes run to the intense, disturbing and darkly plausible, this one might just pull your strings.