Self-mutilation with an electric carving knife, the most unpleasant divorce in the history of cinema, multi-coloured viscous pus pouring from every orifice, Isabelle Adjani going mental for 127 minutes and Sam Neill in tight turquoise trousers. You will find all of this and significantly more in director Andrzej Zuwalski’s Possession (1981), an unsung masterpiece of horror which treads carefully between the realms of art house and exploitation cinema.
As a self-confessed horror fan when I recently picked up a copy, it surprised me that I had never seen nor heard of it. Seeing Sam Neill’s face plastered on the masthead, I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong with watching Dr Alan Grant going through an 18-certificate divorce. I was pleasantly, or perhaps unpleasantly, surprised to find that Possession is much, much more than a kitsch 80s horror flick with a few retrospective Sam Neill-orientated kicks in it. What I got instead was akin to a fevered nightmare of dizzying and hallucinatory emotional heights; moving from the delirious to the berserk in quick succession, Possession grabs you by the throat, squeezes and refuses to let go.
The film opens with Sam Neill’s character Mark returning from an unspecified espionage mission abroad to his wife and young child in Berlin. On his arrival, Mark’s wife Anna, played by the terrifyingly manic Adjani, demands a divorce from Mark with no reason as to why. Mark protests but concedes, leaving her their apartment and custody over their child Bob.
Slowly spiralling into a state of turmoil, Mark becomes convinced that Anna was having an affair and begins to investigate. This investigation leads him to the profoundly bizarre character of Heinrich, and to a mysterious apartment which Anna frequents. As Anna’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, Mark realises her conduct must be the result of more than a love affair, and is shocked to discover she has been engaged in a bloody and murderous love affair with a huge, monstrous and polymorphously perverse tentacled creature.
Aside from the devastatingly horrific exposition of this monstrous creature, the standout element of Possession has to be Adjani’s performance. Picking up both a Cesar and Best Actress at Cannes for her role, she looms menacingly as the centrepiece of the film, both in terms of narrative focus and ferocity of performance. While Possession contains many scenes of gore and hideous imagery, the most horrific and affecting sequences are in the maniacal shouting matches between Anna and Mark, which imbue a palpable sense of hysteria.
As well as these arguments, there is an unforgettable sequence in a subway, which sees Adjani writhing, contorting and suffering a seizure on the floor, culminating in some form of gory demonic miscarriage. This has to be one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing sequences in cinema history, both for its demented ferocity and grotesque imagery. Oddly, this sequence seems to invite flattering comparison to the notorious subway scene in Noe’s Irreversible through the similarity of its setting and harrowingly psychotic behaviour.
On top of its graphic imagery and mania, Zuwalski creates a sustained tone of hallucinogenic confusion throughout the film. Possession fragmentarily cuts forward and possibly even backwards in time in ways which distort narrative linearity. This isn’t done in the Christopher Nolan-esque ‘connect the dots’ sense, but more as a means of echoing Mark’s disorientation at his wife’s behaviour.
This mimicry of Mark’s perplexed mental state is crystallised best when he meets his son’s schoolteacher Helen, who looks exactly the same as his wife Anna – namely because Isabelle Adjani plays both roles. This shifting of the relationship between player and part is one of the many ways in which Possession puts you off-kilter, distorting expectations and causing you to feel almost as mad as the characters.
Unfortunately, parts of the film do look quite dated now. Being over 30 years old, and having been produced on a modest budget, the gore effects leave quite a lot to be desired. While Adjani’s performance is faultless, Sam Neill’s is amusingly hammy and stands out as a product of the 80s, as does his insane array of tight clothing. Surprisingly, however, its creature effects still look impressive and pack a horrifically graphic punch thanks to the work of Italian maestro Carlo Rambaldi, who previously worked on Alien and went on to design E.T. as well as working on Lynch’s Dune.
If one had to compare Possession to a contemporary film, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist seems inevitable and appropriate; both chronicle marital strife through the lens of the horror genre, detail self-mutilation, are sexually explicit, contain excessive gore, and both movies consist of women screaming with feverous and sexually charged lunacy.
Possession, not simply because it came before Antichrist and thus holds some semblance of originality, is superior in terms of intelligence and horror. While Antichrist tends to get lost under the weight of its untidy exploration of misogyny, Possession remains steadfast in its allegiance to the horrific. After sitting in an unsettled and contemplative silence for about ten minutes after watching the film, I had to take a shower. In short, I felt violated.
On its initial release, Possession had to be heavily cut to get a release in the US. In the UK, Possession became embroiled in the video nasty scandal brought about by Mary Whitehouse and a number of other religious groups. As such, Possession was banned from circulation and distribution in the UK until it was finally released without cuts in 1999.
Possession operates not just as an interesting example of the horror genre’s unfair treatment through the 1980s in the UK, but also as a display of the ongoing effects of the video nasty furore, which saw many fine films denied popular distribution and critical attention. Lots of movies, such as The Evil Dead, Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit On Your Grave seemed almost to benefit from their notoriety in the long run, and it’s a shame that many of the other films, such as Possession, seem to still be struggling to gain the appreciation and attention they undoubtedly deserve.
Censorship issues aside, Possession stands out as a visceral and relentless exploration of genre, marriage, sexuality and just about everything in between. Sustaining and building up a palpable sense of hysteria is no mean feat, and Zuwalski does so in Possession to devastating effect. This film leaves you both physically and mentally exhausted, renders you questioning your own sanity, and simultaneously makes you want to watch it again immediately after and not want to set your eyes on it ever again – in many ways, the ultimate achievement for a horror film.
While Possession is rough around the edges and looks dated in places, it is well worth a watch, and will provide a beguiling and macabre experience for horror fans and non-horror fans alike.