Possum is a film which could wrong-foot a lot of people. It’s been released at Halloween and marketed as a horror film, but if you saw it expecting a gore-strewn romp you’d go home disappointed.
It’s written and directed by Matthew Holness, formerly fictional horror novelist and ‘dream-weaver’ Garth Marenghi, but it’s assuredly not Darkplace: The Motion Picture. Instead it’s a highly idiosyncratic, serious and powerful piece of British film-making that deserves to be judged on its own very considerable merits.
Adapted from a 2008 short story written by Holness for Manchester’s own Comma Press, it stars Sean Harris as Philip, a curious, haunted man who returns to his shabby, dingy childhood spawning ground to stay with his uncle Maurice, played by the great Alun Armstrong. In effect, Armstrong’s role here is not much more than a recurring cameo and there are few other characters who make any significant contribution. Effectively, then, Harris is left to carry the entire piece. His character isn’t particularly articulate to boot, but to Harris’s enormous credit he manages to grip the audience’s attention almost with physical acting and facial expression alone.
Like Holness’s previous short films, A Gun for George and The Snipist, Possum reeks of alienation and loneliness. In many ways it’s pinned together not by dialogue or character interaction but by its impressive score, which comes courtesy of the venerable Radiophonic Workshop. Deeply foreboding and with many direct nods to the work of former Workshop member Delia Derbyshire, it illustrates Philip’s inner world and is virtually a character in the film in its own right.
Visually, too, Possum is haunted by dark echoes, of archive TV classics such as the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas strand and the notorious 70s Public Information Films with many lingering shots of Harris alone in barren countryside or in bleak, alarming industrial landscapes. Anyone keen to co-opt the film into sub-genres such as hauntology or folk horror would have no trouble at all.
Above all else it’s an unstintingly intense piece of work, and for some the narrow focus here could prove too much. It’s not a film driven by a twisting, turning narrative and at times it pushes its luck with the lack of information, development or let-up it affords the viewer. Instead, it’s a psychological portrait of an unsettled, obsessive state of mind, and being trapped within it for nearly 90 minutes is almost overpoweringly creepy. There are some more overt scares along the way too and those who are phobic of uncanny puppets or dark, scuttling things should expect to be gripping their hand-rests. Mostly, though, the power of Possum lies in the pervasive existential dread and sense of dislocation conjured by Harris alone as he’s absorbed by his past and his deepest feelings. Uncluttered and fetid, it presents startling, detailed imagery amid twilit vistas which mark out Holness as a film-maker to watch. There may be more light-hearted ways to spend the Halloween season, but Possum is well worth your time and attention. It’s a special film which packs a serious punch.
Writer/director Matthew Holness will be appearing at various Q&A screenings of the film including FACT in Liverpool (October 29) and HOME in Manchester (October 30)