It’s slightly astonishing that it has taken this long for Matthew Holness to make a proper, bona fide horror movie. The man clearly knows and loves the genre, as his now-seminal cult classic sitcom Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace still attests, what with its tongue-in-cheek send-up of cheap, shlocky 80’s horror. So it comes as no surprise to see that Possum has a similar aesthetic about it, albeit with a touch more finesse then the deliberately low-budget Darkplace.
There can certainly be no comparison in terms of style or tone either – Possum is bleak and about as far-removed from the comedic tone of Holness’ TV work as it can get, with a strong emphasis on pure, psychedelic terror. Sean Harris stars as Philip, a tortured but quiet soul and a disgraced puppeteer, who returns to his childhood home to confront his own nightmares, which may well link to a traumatic moment from his past. In tow is a grotesque spider-like puppet called Possum, a haunting and lifeless creature that Philip is desperate to rid himself of. But as events transpire, it becomes clear that Possum isn’t going anywhere…
A mesmerising, mind-bending watch, Possum immediately makes its point that this is not a film for the inattentive – a dark, deceptive puzzle, the story requires the audience to keep up and deduce what’s going on themselves, a task proven all the more challenging with it’s minimal dialogue and hallucinogenic sequences. Holness peppers the film with small clues as to what’s really happening, but for the most part it falls squarely to the viewer to interpret proceedings. However, this aspect makes the experience all the more riveting, especially when the film begins to ruminate upon more universal themes, many of which lend the film real and unsettling moments of emotion and pain.
There some great moments of subtlety, not just in the story and the shots, but also within the performances from Harris and co-star Alun Armstrong. Throughout, a huge sense of dark foreboding hangs over proceedings – building tension to a nail-biting degree, before eventually hitting a cataclysmic crescendo. Holness is a skilful and confident hand behind the camera, displaying a solid appreciation for horror and a firm grasp of the key ingredients that are essential for effective scares. Foregoing CGI in favour of practical effects and clever trick shots, the director understands that what we don’t see remains the scariest, most unsettling aspect of the the entire film.
Possum is also possessed with a welcoming retro style, most prominently displayed in the aforementioned effects and the doom-laden electronic score produced by the legendary Radiophonic Workshop, which contributes massively to the film’s grim, downbeat demeanour.
For all that though, Possum is a forward-thinking horror movie – a powerful exploration of real adult themes, told through the veil of psychological horror in an assured and fine-tuned manner. Matthew Holness‘s script is layered with metaphor and meaning beyond the weird, often terrifying, imagery we see on screen which results in a film that sticks in the brain well beyond initial viewing.
Possum is released in UK cinemas this Friday 26 October.