The itsy-bitsy spider crawled up the water spout, only in this case, the spider isn’t so itsy, and instead of a spout, the large, hairy bastard just crawled up my spine and bit into my brain. I’m woozy. Could be from the bite. Or maybe it’s because Possum, which just dropped on DVD today from Dark Sky Films, is such an unbelievably chilling descent into madness, its left me disoriented and calling for my momma…
…Avert your eyes, those of you with arachnophobia, because what I’m about to describe to you is horror incarnate and on eight legs. The debut feature of writer/director Matthew Holness, Possum stars Sean Harris as a disgraced children’s puppeteer returning to his childhood home, where he must confront his stepfather (Alun Armstrong), and the dark secrets that have tortured him his whole life. Oh, and there happens to be a giant spider puppet with a human head stalking Phillip everywhere he goes.
Possum is a poetic tale straight out of a nightmarish children’s book. From beginning to end, Phillip offers rhythmic snippets of a poem which instill fear and unease. Similar to films such as The Babadook, Possum takes the dreamlike sensibilities of a children’s story, and wraps its long, fearsome legs around that dream, squeezing the light out of it until there is nothing but gray and death. This is an impressive debut for Holness in the sense that the director expresses a masterful knack for getting under the viewer’s skin. I don’t know want to know what kind of fucked up children’s books Holness was reading when he was a kid. Actually, yes, I do, because I’m totally going to scare the crap out of my niece with them.
Together with cinematographer Kit Fraser, Holness paints a bleak, grimy world where nothing is as it seems and unspeakable horror waits around every corner. Possum strangles the viewer with imagery as unsettling as insects hanging from a web like white cotton candy. Fraser manages to make the mere image of balloons scary again, a feat not accomplished since the original IT. Everywhere we look, branches and pieces of jungle-gyms are made to look like arachnid legs. The viewer is not allowed to forget that Phillips monstrosity of a spider-human puppet exists and is lurking around somewhere. Seriously, this puppet is a chilling sight to behold, well-crafted and perfectly terrifying, especially when Holness finally decides to show it crawling on its own. Thanks to Possum, I never want to look at another spider again.
While the puppet, aka the sin against nature, is the main selling point of Possum, Harris also does a great job as Phillip, a man whose mind is slowly unravelling like a strand of web. Look, we’re both just going to have to accept the spider puns, I’ve got spiders on the brain. As he usually does, Harris delivers an odd, uncomfortable performance that does nothing to make the audience think that anything which is happening is “normal”. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s pretty obvious from the get go that Phillip is unhinged, so the question becomes, how unhinged? A lesser actor would probably look silly taking out his frustration by beating on an—at the time—inanimate puppet, but Harris sells the anger and terror over losing his own mind. He is convincing as a traumatized man who has been hurt by his past, and elicits feelings of empathy with a memorable, albeit odd, execution.
Holness and his crew do an excellent job of drawing the viewer into this bad dream. Not only are the colors drab and sinister, reminding me now of artwork from the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books, but the settings are equally unnerving. Set amongst decrepit apartment buildings, dying forests, and rusted piping, Possum takes you deep into the basement of the mind, led along by a haunting score from The Radiophonic Workshop. No matter how you may end up feeling towards the film overall, Holness never fails to illicit feelings of dread and the tickling of insanity creeping up your back one hairy leg at a time, enhanced by the jarring though striking editing by Tommy Boulding. This movie will make you want to take a scalding shower to get rid of that flesh-crawling feeling.
While Holness displays an exceptional aptitude for atmosphere and telling a “scary” story, the script itself is where the problems lie for Possum. Like the creature the film is named after, Holness’ script plays possum, lying subdued and “dead” for too long to retain much interest, which is the kiss of death for a film under ninety minutes. Possum becomes overly redundant, again and again circling around to Phillip’s desire to rid himself of the spider-puppet which represents all of his failures and traumas. Over and over you’ll see Phillip toss the puppet in a river, or leave it in the woods, or beat the webbing out of it, only for it to return again in increasingly morbid fashion. It’s like that scene in Freddy’s Dead, where the heroes drive around in a loop, totally lost with nowhere to go. Possum feels just as aimless, caught dangling from the prey on a…okay, I’ll stop with the spider references. A lot of great horror films are a slow burn, but as a viewer, you want to feel like you’re walking out of a blazing inferno by the end. Possum is the kind of slow burn that manages to singe a few hairs off your head, but that’s it.
To Holness’ credit, I expect the repetitive nature of Possum is one hundred percent intentional. Going back to the children’s book analogy, most popular children’s books are repetitive. Clifford the big red dog is trying to hide in obvious places on every page. Dr. Seuss repeats the same phrases so many times your brain turns to green eggs and ham. Not to mention, Possum is supposed to feel like a dream, and dreams themselves are often redundant without much of an “ending”. For some, Possum is a nightmare incarnate. But for the rest of us, it is a creepy, though dragging, affair that might have worked better as a short film with about forty-five minutes chopped off.
As for the DVD itself, the transfer is good quality, and the sound is mixed well enough to creep under your skin. The special features actually offer a bit more than we’re used to on DVDs these days, featuring some interesting interviews with Holness, Harris, Armstrong, and producer Jamie Harris. There’s also a behind the scenes video, and of course, the trailer, making this DVD a must own for fans of the film.
Possum is a few legs short of being a perfect horror movie, but is nevertheless a unique, strange little film. Holness has firmly established himself as a new voice of terror to watch in the horror genre.
Possum is out now on DVD from Dark Sky Films.
By Matt Konopka