Best known for co-writing and starring in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Matthew Holness goes to very dark places with his debut feature as a writer and director, Possum. Starring an unnerving Sean Harris, an equally upsetting Alun Amstrong and a human-arachnid hybrid that joins the ranks of cinema’s scariest puppets, the film’s a two-hander horror with eight limbs.
Following his disgraced exit from a job, troubled Phillip (Harris) returns to his childhood home – or, rather, one of them, as we learn his parents died in a fire when he was young. The isolated former home he does visit is occupied by Morris (Armstrong), the deranged man who raised him during his teens. In keeping with the film’s fluctuations between clear reality and nightmarish fantasy, Morris can be interpreted as both Phillip’s uncle and stepfather at various points. But, regardless of the exact relationship, what matters is that Morris is the person who seems to have made Phillip the haunted man he is as an adult.
Phillip and Morris are both puppeteers, and Phillip brings with him, in a brown leather bag, a terrifying creation. He intends to destroy the thing but repeatedly holds back, and when he does succeed, the seemingly sentient hand puppet just comes back. Its name is Possum, and the character’s backstory is illustrated in a rhyme-based picture book. One sample couplet is “The parcel opened, out it sprang / The black, long-legged spider-man,” which is as close to Marvel sunshine as this film gets.
Flashes of Eraserhead and Don’t Look Now can be found in Possum’s rhythms and themes of trauma, and it’s absolutely meant as a compliment to say it’s like what you might get if Nicolas Roeg made The Babadook. But Holness’ film – which also has an old school element in being a rare modern horror shot on 35mm – never feels derivative, and part of its slow burn terror is just how dangerously unpredictable the whole thing feels.
Possum was seen and reviewed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.