It should come as no surprise that a film with a creepy nursery rhyme and a terrifying spider creature is a deeply unsettling watch, but ‘Possum’ from Matthew Holness, the mind behind the hilarious Garth Marenghi’s Dark Places, defies expectations by striking one of the bleakest and creepiest tones I’ve seen in a film for quite some time.
Fronted admirably by the sorely under appreciated Sean Harris of recent Mission Impossible fame, who cuts a forlorn figure through the desolate, disused and barren landscapes scattered throughout the film. Harris is simply superb in what is predominantly a physical role, playing a disgraced puppeteer returning to his childhood to confront his twisted step-father and the trauma that defined his childhood and adult life, the whole thing undercut by the mystery of a missing boy taking place in the background throughout.
Harris’ Phillip is a lowly, traumatised character who is equal parts sympathetic and menacing. He spends most of his time traipsing through forests, abandoned army barracks and wastelands trying to rid himself of a sinister puppet, the film’s titular ‘Possum’ and proverbial ‘monkey paw’ which he carries around in a leather bag. When carrying the bag Harris is confident, but repressed and anxious, without it he’s positively unhinged, arms hanging loosely in front of him, facial expressions ranging from confused to tortured. It really is a great performance.
The co-star of the film is arguably ‘Possum’ itself, a truly sinister spectacle that is the epitome of nightmare fuel. What’s more, Holness shows masterful control over how much of the spider-creature to show and when, abstract limbs are seen coming around corners, reflections are seen in mirrors, tension is being built the whole time. When we finally do get to see the full striking creature it’s a truly shocking moment, made better by Harris’ dual reverence and repulsion.
‘Possum’ is met in sheer awfulness by Alun Armstrong’s Maurice. He may not be as overtly monstrous as a spider puppet with a blank expressionless human head but he’s a yellow-teethed repugnant old man who takes extreme joy in tormenting and abusing Philip. Armstrong, just like Harris, is extremely committed to the role and truly created a character that you can’t help but be repulsed by.
The narrative is fairly difficult to follow, Holness plays with his narrative by making it unclear whether anything that’s happening is real, or whether anything’s that happening is linear. We follow Harris lugging the heavy bag containing Possum around and trying to dispose of it in various locations, only for Possum to return and Harris having to keep returning to these locations time and time again. The film meanders in this way for quite some time and as a result can feel repetitive and tedious, however you could argue it’s all necessary to build up the atmosphere, tone and tension and truly create the idea that Possum might be some sort of otherworldly thing.
My interpretation, given that we know Philip had a traumatic childhood, not just because his parents died in a horrific fire, or the Fox anecdote he’s forced to retell, but but also the abuse at the hands of his step-father is that Possum is a mental creation of Phillip’s, a psychological manifestation of his trauma, abuse and, as is revealed in the films dramatic denouement, guilt that he can’t seem to rid himself of, Possum ‘is’ those things and Harris lugging it about in the bar is a literal metaphor for emotional baggage.
I don’t want to give too much away but the film really ramps up in the final moments, Phillip is literally haunted and stalked towards the final shocking reveal that really ignites the thick kerosene fog of tension, even if it does feel a little brief and rushed in comparison to what comes before.
That being said Possum paints a beautifully bleak, colour muted idyl of England, excellent performances from its limited cast and it carries with it an unsettling, dark and foreboding tone and resolution that has a way of sticking with you after watching like it’s the web and you’re the unsuspecting fly. It’s truly a superb debut directorial effort from Holness, who has created a film that patiently lies in wait like a spider ready to lay eggs in your brain that will have you seeing eight legged monstrosities at the end of your bed.