Matthew Holness / UK / 2018 / 85 mins
Philip, a failed puppeteer, comes back to the desolate Norfolk town where he grew up to confront old demons – both real and imaginary. Carrying with him a hideously deformed marionette by the name of Possum, Philip intends to destroy his burden and with it the memories of a childhood that has left him emotionally and mentally scarred… but soon finds the task might be one that is beyond him.
This intense psychological horror is the debut feature film from Matthew Holness, the brain behind Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. From the get-go Holness sets his stall out, opting for distant, silent and overly long shots of the barren Norfolk landscape to communicate the isolation of his protagonist. The soundtrack is stitched together by the acclaimed BBC Radiophonic Workshop studio, exacerbating the tension with its abrasive, otherworldly sounds and almost complete lack of rhythm.
However, it’s the actors who do most of the heavy lifting here. The film is basically a two-hander, featuring an excellent, emotionally-coiled Sean Harris playing Philip, a man on the verge of losing his mind as he seeks some sort of release from his inward exile. Opposite him is Alun Armstrong in the role of Philip’s stepfather, an unsettling character who appears to harbour one or two secrets of his own.
Those expecting a straight-up horror will likely be disappointed; for all the legitimate creepiness of the puppet and the film’s pervasive skin crawl, there are few real scares to speak of. Instead, director Holness has channelled the terror caused by Philip’s own isolation and inability to connect with others to create a film that is brimming with emotion and angst. Expect an uncomfortable ride – but not necessarily a scary one.
Similarly, the film’s climax is somewhat straightforward and, as such, a mite disappointing. The lack of an unforeseeable twist might support the realism of Holness’ creation, and it’s certainly an original take on an underdiscussed issue, but it lacks punch. The protracted pace of the piece and the preference for stylistic cinematography over plot developments that you can get your teeth into combine to make Possum an adequately creepy and quietly eloquent but ultimately underwhelming debut.