I can’t lie about the influence that Matthew Holness has had on my writing and general outlook. Even now, I can still quote huge sections of Darkplace episodes. So when he announced his latest film, Possum, that he wrote and directed, I knew had to be first in the queue.
Possum is a straight up horror film. As Holness said in his introduction to the film at the screening, “there are no laughs.” And there aren’t. The story is based on Holness’ own short story but deviates from the original in some areas and obviously is extrapolated to suit its new medium.
Possum is the story of Philip, an apparently disgraced puppeteer who returns to his childhood home that is occupied by his vile uncle Morris. His puppet, the titular Possum, is a grotesque, deranged thing as proven when his uncle remarks “you showed that to kids?” As Philip’s stay with his uncle lengthens, his issues begin to expand. Is he going mad? Is Possum indestructible and who is really pulling the strings here?
As with Darkplace, everything about Possum screams England. The wild Norfolk countryside invoking M.R. James and classic English ghost stories. However, the film is presented in a much more oblique fashion than any of those tales. The sound design is jarring and impressive, lending even more atmosphere to Holness’ stark visuals and lingering shots. The visuals here are excellent too. The set design is superb and embodies the despair and degradation of the characters. Holness’ view has the aesthetic of a seventies public information film, a clear and unique look that he applies very well and consistently throughout. The puppet itself is well designed and an improvement on what was suggested in the original source material. The inclusion of a strange book is a nice twist and just about different enough to The Babadook to warrant its inclusion.
The character of Philip is by turns sympathetic and repulsive. A reclusive, nervous figure masterfully portrayed by Sean Harris, continuing some of the fantastic work he has done in the past with troubled, dark characters. Alun Armstrong is also well case as Morris. His teeth alone set me on edge.
I caught Possum at a screening in Liverpool that featured a Q&A with Matthew Holness. He talked openly about his influences, his struggle in part to expand the story from a short and to resist commercial pressure to truncate the story into a traditional three act structure. He also spoke passionately about breaking out of the comedy mould that he had been cast in and how he wanted to make a serious piece. It was very enlightening and inspiring to hear him talk so openly.
Possum is a disturbing film, far from an easy watch. It is full of tension and ambiguity. If you want closure or full answers, then look elsewhere. Reading the original short story helped but again, left questions in my mind that I am still thinking over now. Far from the pleasant satire of Darkplace, Possum is as spiky and uncomfortable as its cast of characters. However this is not meant in a detrimental sense as everything about it is compelling and interesting. Possum declares Holness as a real talent in the world of “serious” horror. Don’t expect him to return to playing it for laughs any time soon. But comedy’s loss, is certainly the horror genre’s gain.