Possum (2018)

Director: Matthew Holness

Writer: Matthew Holness

Starring: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong, Simon Bubb

Cert: 15

Possibly one of the most distressingly unsettling films of recent years, Possum is a desperately gloomy study of a deeply tormented but fascinating character.

Returning to his childhood home, Philip, a disturbed and tormented former-puppeteer, struggles with his many demons which are personified by 'Possum', a strange creature with accompanies him within a leather hold-all. As Philip confronts his deplorable step-father, the creature's influence on Philip's mind begins to intensify, leading it to become more and more splintered.

Oppressively bleak throughout, not one shred of warmth or cheerfulness can be found within the make-up of Matthew Holness' astounding psychological horror, Possum. Everything in the film is filthy and broken; cigarette stained walls and ruined garish carpets decorate a house void of furniture or pictures or any of the things which would transform it into a comfortable home. Outside of the house we visit cloggy marshlands layered with dying grass and deserted airfields littered with smashed concrete and decaying buildings. At no point in Possum do you feel welcomed. Even the film itself feels rough around the edges, unpolished and coarse, intensifying the misery of the plot. The editing could be crisper and the sound could be sharper, but Holness seems to use his inexperience as a film director and the restriction on his resources to his advantage, embracing the low-budget look of the film to enhance the already frighteningly grim atmosphere.

Equally repellent is the film's truly haunting score, a masterful array of music provided by The Radiophonic Workshop. Its dissonant combination of creepy childlike melodies and erratic instrumental jumbles creates a soundtrack which simply refuses to let you settle. It's the perfect auditory accompaniment to the horribly depressed tone of the film, never pretty or pleasant and keeping you in a perpetual state of unease.

Sean Harris delivers an astounding and worryingly potent performance as the tortured and uneasy Philip. He is off-balance from the start, both in regard to his character's obviously fractured mental state but also with his physical presence, almost never stood or sat in a comfortable position. Philip is not a well man, and not once is there any suggestion of hopefulness about his story. His later scenes are even more distressing, as the damaged nature of his character is revealed as we are given clues about his horrific past. Similarly disturbing, but far more abhorrent, is Alun Armstrong's performance as Philip's manipulative and cruel step-father Maurice. He is a truly horrible man, and it is to his credit that he has been able to conjure a character so fundamentally repulsive.

Although perhaps not technically being a character, the creature residing within Philip's leather hold-all is such a huge presence in a film that perhaps it should be viewed as one. It is wordless throughout, with relatively limited screen-time, but manages to be such a focal point within the film as well as forming a whole dimension of Harris' character. Its design is stunningly nightmarish and macabre, with its full form being surprising and odd at first glance but consistently dreadful to look at. When we are confronted with 'Possum', particularly during some of the more abstract scenes, Philip's tormented presentation becomes much more understandable.

In the same way that Philip's existence seems to be an endless cycle of suffering, so to is Possum full of repetition. The story isn't linear, and images often repeat themselves as their relevance to the story is made clear. Symbolism is used liberally; overtly at times with chokingly black smoke overcoming the playful innocence of colourful balloons, while the mysterious and repulsive creature which accompanies Philip takes on a more implicit representation. It is an inventive approach to story telling, making Possum not only atmospherically powerful, but narratively as well. Possum is a film which is clear and understandable, but also allows room for interpretation.

Possum is not a film you'll enjoy but a film you will admire. It is a remarkably ambitious and powerful piece of film, with its final scenes being particularly harrowing to watch. It's unpleasant to look at and dismaying to listen to, with no joy appearing anywhere within its story-line, but Possum is a horror film which will stay with you long after the credit's begin to roll, and is an incredibly distinctive first attempt by Holness to direct a feature length film.

In one line: Possum is a film you'll want to keep at a wide berth, but is one of the most frighteningly effective horror years in recent years.

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