Adapted from his own short story of the same name and directed by Matthew Holness, Possum is an extremely dark tale with a delightfully awkward performance from Sean Harris as Philip in both his voice and mannerisms.
Returning home to his run down house, years after his parents died in a fire, disgraced puppeteer Philip finds his malevolent and also very creepy uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong) still living there and still holding sway over Philip but about what we don’t know yet. The same goes for Philip’s past and whatever indiscretions that have occurred that have lead us back here, back home again.
Philip is trying to get rid of his puppet, Possum, eventually revealed as part spider but with a human head. And yes, it is as disturbing a sight as it sounds. However, each time he does get rid of it by throwing it away or burning it or drowning it, Possum always returns to him and, in conjunction with this his visions and dreams get considerably more creepy and disturbing.
Mother, father what’s afoot, Only Possum black as soot.
Mother, Father where to tread? Far from Possum and his head.
Here’s a bag now what’s inside, Does he seek or does he hide.
Can you spy him deep within, Little Possum, black as sin.
Bag is open, growing wider, Whats inside, man or spider?
Little boy don’t lose your way, Possum wants to come and play.
Look at Possum, there he lies, Children meet his lifeless eyes
See his nasty legs and tongue, When he wakens, watch him run.
Wait awhile my little child, For what is playing dead
Possum with his black balloons, Will eat you up in bed.
Happy valley painted black, all the children in a sack.
Wave goodbye to sun and moon, Say hello to black balloon.
The parcel opened, out it sprang, the black long-legged Possum man.
Children run! He’ll eat and smother, any child without a mother.
There is a fantastic folk horror feel to Possum. Utilising a slow pace and having minimal, awkward dialogue everything in Possum feels deliberately disturbing and unsettling, from the themes to the tone and even the locations and wardrobe are grimy and horrible. The imagery and flow at times have a discordant feel, like they aren’t entirely related, making it an uneasy watch but this all plays into the disquieting feel that director Matthew Holness is going for. Not much is revealed about Philip or uncle Maurice, or indeed about Philip’s puppet Possum, but that just adds to the atmosphere as you are left wondering what has lead them, and you, to this horrid place and time.
The Radiophonic Workshop’s score flits between folky and haunting through to having a pounding, ominous impetus. This works extremely well, especially against the quiet, sparse dialogue of Harris’ voiceover reading the Possum rhyme that Philip wrote when he was a young boy. There is something inherently disturbing about this book and the rhyme. The idea that Philip created a story about Possum as a way to make sense of his experiences as a youngster or to make them seem not real, pinning the blame on Possum for the actions of someone else, is a horrible thought on top of the imagery that is being shown. The Possum story makes a little more sense at the end of the film, but again, it doesn’t wrap everything up with a nice little bow, leaving you to try to work out what happened by yourself.
Alun Armstrong’s performance as Uncle Maurice is wonderfully disturbing when he makes an appearance and contains an unknown element, something that gives him power or control over Philip that has never left. Sean Harris’s voice over work reading from his story is fantastic, being creepy yet childlike. This is definitely Sean Harris’ film though, with his brilliantly awkward performance as he slowly falls apart, in both his demeanour and his behaviour. It is horrible but also amazing to watch and he looks and behaves like he is suffering and uncomfortable the whole way through.
The creepiness ramps up towards the end and the pace similarly increases but still without anything being revealed or any real focus on where they are going, just that you know it is building towards a climax. Along with this upping of the pace the puppet Possum starts to play a more influential part in Philip’s descent into the abyss. Possum is a truly disturbing film, and with lots of questions hinted at but not answered it is left up to the viewer to fill in the blanks. This film is definitely going to divide people, they will either love it or hate it, but for me Possum is a fantastic piece of unsettling cinema.
Originally published on Set The Tape