Possum (2018)

FEBRUARY 24, 2019


I haven't memorized it or anything (in fact I only saw it once) but I absolutely loved Garth Marenghi's Darkplace when I watched its all-too-brief run (six episodes) a few years back, and was thus excited to see what creator Matthew Holness would come up with for his first feature length film, assuming it would have a similar horror/comedy blend. But I quickly realized that Possum was nothing like Darkplace; it'd be like if you watched Elephant Man or The Fly expecting the usual Mel Brooks hijinks, and if anything the film might play better to those who have no idea who Holness is at all. The film has not one note of identifiable humor, and Holness (who also starred in Darkplace, for those uninitiated) remains behind the camera; the only time you'll see him is in the behind the scenes footage on the DVD.

Instead, the film puts Sean Harris in nearly every frame (and often by himself) as Philip, an ex-puppeteer who may or may not be a murderer. The title refers not to the animal, but the name he's given a puppet of a spider that he seems unhealthily attached to, carrying it around with him at all times (though thankfully concealed in a bag) even though he seems to be afraid of it. The nature of this puppet and his connection to it is one of the film's many mysteries, most of which aren't fully spelled out for the audience before the credits roll, so if you're an "I need answers" type this is most certainly not the film for you. It can occasionally be hard to tell what's a dream/hallucination and what is really happening, and there are repeated images that suggest the narrative isn't chronological to boot. Add in the long stretches of silence and other "arty" touches and you have a movie that makes something like The Witch look as simple as a slasher flick.

But that's the narrative. On a "this movie is freaking me out" level, it's a winner - the movie isn't even a full 90 minutes long but it's got enough nightmare fuel to last a week (indeed, it gave me a legit nightmare; a low-key one to be fair, but still). It probably didn't help his (clearly not high) budget, but Holness smartly shot on film, which goes a long way into helping evoke the 70s thrillers he was emulating. On one of the interviews on the DVD he says it's a movie that exists for late night viewing, something he'd want people to stumble upon and be unsettled by - he certainly pulled that off, and I don't think it would really work if it was shot digitally (the recent Ghost Stories was also aiming for this specific feel, but missed in part to its unmistakably modern digital photography). Even the titles recall films of that era; if not for Sean Harris starring and the very, very rare non-period detail (like a television, the odd car, or a day-player's outfit) I could see someone being fooled into thinking it really was some lost indie from 1977.

Harris is terrific, by the way. He's probably most famous as the chilling villain from the last couple of Mission Impossible films, and it's a huge departure from those - he's kind of pathetic and awkward, a far cry from his calculating Solomon Lane. I almost didn't even recognize him at first, and given his reported "method" acting ways I don't envy what he probably put himself through to achieve his performance. It's not a flattering role in any respect, and again he's pretty much the only person in the movie (besides his uncle, who he lives with), so it couldn't have been a fun or easy shoot for him (or anyone around him, depending on how strictly he followed the "rules" of this approach) if he had to remain in character for so much time. Familiar character actor Alun Armstrong is also quite good as his uncle, who seems to be responsible for some of Philip's timidness (to what extent, of course, is one of the film's mysteries), and is pretty much the only other person in the movie who appears more than once. If Holness were to beef up his role a bit, it could even work as a stage production since the uncle never leaves the house (and Philip never seems to stray too far from it).

So as you might have figured out for yourself by now, the movie requires some patience, perhaps a bit TOO much at times, as it's often fairly repetitive. Holness based it on one of his short stories, and the "expand to feature length" seams show, particularly in the middle of the film which seems to be stuck in a cycle of scenes where Philip decides to rid himself of the puppet by ditching it somewhere, only for it to come back (or even retrieve it himself). Since I was already creeped out early, this padded middle section ended up deflating some of that unsettled feeling as opposed to ramping it up, leaving me hoping for a big shock to the system that would send me out feeling - at the very least - as disturbed as I was at the 20-25 minute mark. Your mileage can/will vary of course, since everyone scares differently, but I couldn't help but think maybe taking a page from Audition or something like that and leaving horror out of it for a bit would have helped maintain that unnerved feeling throughout.

Otherwise, as these things go I'd put it up there with Soft For Digging and older fare like Haunts and Magic in the "what is UP with this person?" low-key, methodically-paced horror, and as Holness intended it gives off plenty of that late night syndicated viewing vibe that unfortunately doesn't really exist anymore. Movies like Let's Scare Jessica to Death or Malatesta's Carnival of Blood similarly seemed designed for that very specific audience, but in those cases the films might have actually been found that way by a number of their fans. The best chance something like this has of being "stumbled upon" would probably be if it ended up on Shudder and someone caught it thanks to their (very cool) "Shudder TV" option, which leaves out the scrolling around for something to choose and just has things running nonstop as a regular TV network would. And those people will get the most out of the film, I think, as they won't have any idea or preconceived notion of its content - everyone else, you need to keep your expectations in check (and your phone out of reach for when you might be tempted to grab it) so that its restrained approach can be allowed to deliver.

What say you?


Post a Comment

Movie & TV Show Preview Widget