There’s a musk over this film; when it’s done, you’ll feel like you breathed in old dust and can’t find the instinct to cough. British comedian Matthew Holness seems unlikely to be the maestro of so much ambient dread but maybe that’s something we Americans don’t quite understand about British humor. Their silliest comedies often contain the ambition to be full of terror (notice how The Office contains its own kind of dread, a dread of awkwardness that leads into a punchline rather than a scare). This is what makes even the most serious British films often seem like black comedies to us (just look at how we interpreted The Wicker Man in the remake). Like The Wicker Man, Possum is full of that 70s horror dread, when movies were slow, and beige, and one pratfall away from being a secret comedy.
You’re never sure if you want to laugh at Sean Harris’ deathly face and that’s what makes him so scary as Philip, the disgraced children’s puppeteer whose cheeks comprise the majority of the scenery in Possum. It’s never scarier than at the very beginning, when he’s looking into one of those trees whose branches grow from the ground around a gap in the middle where the trunk should be, staring at a duffel bag. The frame stays just above it; we barely glimpse the prop spider’s legs reaching out of it. We’re fixed on his eyes. No one watching this movie would need any convincing that it’s about what this man feels about himself: the unseen puppet exudes his sinister psychology from the first moment.
Like the original The Wicker Man and especially like the Kaufman remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Possum contains a suffocating suspicion of other people. This is social anxiety congealed into a glance, into thin walls and cigarette stains and tired eyes. Cinematographer Kit Fraser lights people like Holness told him to remind us of their skeletons. Maybe he wants us to think of the ones they keep in their closet.
How a visual observation can turn into a cliché like “skeletons in the closet” is the problem with Possum. It acts like a movie that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself, and then punctures its third act with a literal-minded conclusion that turns all its dread into a whimper. It’s so orthodox: the villain explains their evil plan, gives a speech about the main character’s backstory, and is then defeated. The plot involves a local boy going missing: do people assume it was Philip who took him, who clearly hides some kind of terrible past involving abuse and children? It’s not nearly as important as the fact that Philip may assume it was himself, and that we may assume it of him. He’s not sure what his dark desires, his tremendous guilt, will drive him to do. By the end, we know it wasn’t him, and that’s how we know the limits of the movie’s terror: it has a villain, and a conclusion, and a third act, and these are things it didn’t deserve. About halfway through, it even starts crafting jump scares, putting the puppet in places for Philip to find, and leading him on in the score to be startled. It’s so disappointing.
The disappointment comes from how well the movie escalates to that point. The camera has an unnerving habit of making Philip seem like he’s looking down at himself, and the puppet, slinking into our view in a mirror or over his bed, becomes a total figure of his paranoia. What makes Possum brilliant is that he’s paranoid only about himself; this is a Norman Bates story where we’re clued in the whole time, where there’s no victim other than his own mind. We don’t learn to understand this person at all, at first; in a scene of haunting relevance, he stands wistfully and regretfully outside of a school – depending on who you are, the implication may even make you openly hate him. Holness knows that this man can’t remind us of ourselves if he has too much story in him. He takes away the luxury of us pitying him, and makes us identify his loathing patterns in our own lives. So Possum contains a sense of somber self-reflection past the point of glamor, which most movies use to make us feel sorry for someone who has someone else to blame. Philip reads poetry in this movie (“Can you spy him, deep within? Little Possum, black as sin”) but it isn’t itself poetic. It’s a blunt instrument to open our guilt. Its only flaw is that it gets too blunt.
But the value in a movie made for nothing, with this much attention to hallways, doorframes, eye sockets, trees, reaches beyond its hidden need for closure, the blackest little sin of any movie whose entire tension is sold on the ambiguity that we fill with our personal fears. Harris gives a performance which in another genre would be deemed heroic; he undoes himself for Possum, and will be remembered as an icon when we take the time to look back, as we have in the past, at movies that passed us by because they were small enough to remind us of ourselves. The slow, simmering hazes in this movie, the marshlands and the grey skies, the peeling rooms and skeletal trees, are all more forboding than a spider puppet. Holness almost knew this; he almost knew that no scares were needed at all, no wind-ups and no long hallways and no monsters around corners. It’s so much scarier when we peek and there’s nothing there, because there isn’t anything to be there, except what we thought might be. That’s where Possum thrives, where it finds the guilty heart of its performer, and the taut tension of its participants, thinking on their own sins until the third act, when they become someone else’s. This movie has a deeper “within” than most horror movies combined; it was the best I saw all year. You don’t have to work too hard to spy it though: just wait for it to tell you the whole story.
Image is a screenshot from the film: © Dark Sky Films.
Cast & Crew