Possum Review

Matthew Holness taps into psychological horror greatness with a cerebral picture that will lay eggs in your brain.

Possum has all of the ingredients that you hope for from a debut horror picture. It tells a disturbing story about a man returning to his childhood home and caught in a tug of war with an alluring spider puppet. Possum throws its audience into a twisted puzzle and relishes the ensuing confusion. It’s a phenomenal debut film as writer-director for Matthew Holness (best known for acting in frekaing Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), who balances a complex tightrope between tones.

Even though Possum presents a highly stylized story with plenty of disturbing and confounding visuals, this is really an internal tale about repression, living with past grief, and the power of guilt when it festers and isn’t confronted. It also eloquently explores deeper material like whether it’s possible to truly overcome past compulsions or if they’re always with us and just lying dormant. Possum may examine such heady issues, but it never shows its hand in such regard. It presents all of this as a painful, psychological homecoming that shatters reality and distorts the truth in a way that’s extremely rare for the horror genre.

At its surface level, Possum is extremely simple. Philip (Sean Harris) returns home and shacks up with his creepy stepfather, Maurice (Alun Armstrong). Something clearly weighs on Philip as he aimlessly wanders through the countryside with a heavy bag that contains an upsetting spider puppet. As Philip tries to find peace of mind during his return home, the disappearance of a child rocks the community. And in this crisis, Philip’s unusual behavior raises a few red flags.

What follows is a haunted lullaby that’s largely filtered through Philip’s perspective where both he and the audience are never truly sure what’s real. The result feels like Cronenberg’s internal Spider meets The Babadook, with a touch of Magic thrown in for good measure. There’s even a delightfully eerie nursery rhyme that accompanies the morbid puppet. Possum is a slow burn, but once it ignites, goddamn.

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Harris’ work as Philip is nothing short of incredible. All of his body language with the bag that contains “possum” is hypnotizing. Much of this film rests on Harris’ solo performance, but he makes the bag and the puppet inside it practically feel like his co-star. Philip’s stepfather, Maurice, grimly jokes that the spider puppet has a “mind of its own,” but it feels like more of a character than Philip at times. It’s as if the puppet’s having a conversation with him through the entire film, but the audience doesn’t get to be privy to any of it.

Furthermore, Possum really makes the audience fight to see Philip’s spider puppet and when it’s finally revealed it does not disappoint. The thing is pure nightmare fuel and the sort of thing that Sid from Toy Story would make if he grew up and stopped taking his meds. Philip treats it with such reverence the first time it’s fully revealed that he simultaneously shifts between awe and fear with the object. If Philip’s puppet looked silly, none of this would work. So it’s satisfying to see the proper attention to detail put in to assure that this thing is as possible. It almost feels like the puppet’s face is modeled after Philip. He also keeps the puppet’s face obscured as often as possible, like this is a part of himself that he doesn’t want to confront and keep hidden.

Philip attempts to deal with his broken past and come to terms with his lost childhood and his longing for normalcy in his life. The film really accentuates his feelings of loneliness with how he’s often framed in wide exterior shots where he’s diminished and isolated by the camera. He attempts to negotiate his complicated relationship with the puppet where he appears to hate it, but becomes even more distraught without it. This turns into a rather powerful commentary on the nature of pain and how Philip is addicted to the unhealthy relationships he’s set up around himself. Harris’ entire performance is wonderful, but the pain that he brings forward toward the end of the film is just unreal. It’s like his body is rejecting his soul.

Very real crimes do take place within Possum, but the film instead examines the denial and grief around them, and presents a layered metaphor for the evil that lies within all of us. At the end of the day, are we a man or are we a spider? Is the evil streak that’s exhibited in this film over, or is it just hiding in remission and waiting for a safe moment to come back out? Just like you can’t run away from your guilt or your conscience forever, Philip cannot run away from his spider puppet.

Possum’s ending comes across as a genuine surprise and it makes the story much more about past trauma and culpability. It may reframe the story in a significant way, but it still doesn’t fundamentally change anything. Possum is the very best kind of psychological thriller that just continues to drill deeper into the same rich territory. Possum does require patience, but part of its charm is in not knowing when it will strike. Is it alive or is it dead? In either case, it’s still unforgettable.

Possum premiered at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, and will be released in theaters in the UK and via VOD on Oct. 26.

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Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic. Read more of his work here. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.

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4 out of 5