When I first stumbled across POSSUM on Letterboxd, the promotional image grabbed me immediately, and I knew I would have to review it (thanks heaps, Dark Sky Films!). Still, I didn’t really know what to expect. And that’s the best possible way to go into POSSUM, because its themes are revealed in scattered pieces that make for an irresistible mosaic of weirdness.
I’ll begin by saying that I watched this film twice. The night after the first viewing, I dreamt about it quite vividly. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember which parts were the dream and which parts were the actual film. It all seemed equally likely.
The plot has both familiar elements and unusual ones. A puppeteer named Philip returns to his childhood home — after giving what is implied to have been a disastrous performance — carrying a single bag with a puppet inside. He seems to have no other luggage. A raunchy family figure, Maurice, is waiting for him, sitting and smoking cigarettes behind a wall of dirty dishes, and Philip settles uncomfortably into his tiny childhood bedroom.
Throughout the film, Philip attempts to get rid of the bag and its contents. He throws it away, drops it into a canal, tries to leave it in the woods. But the puppet inside keeps crawling back to him, over and over. And crawl the thing does, as its only visible features for the first chunk of the film are eight gangly, fuzzy spider legs. (Hot tip: arachnophobes need not watch this movie.)
It’s useless to spout the significance of this “baggage” imagery because the movie itself illustrates it so well. The stark scenery and nebulous timeframe reminded me a lot of HEAD TRAUMA (2005), which is one of my favorite seldom-seen horror films, and aside from a few peripheral train passengers and television announcers, POSSUM has the feel of a one-act stage play with nothing but two actors and a focus prop.
Then again, POSSUM would not likely adapt well to theater due to the constant hallucinatory images that pepper the action throughout. Balloons on fire, an empty hallway, an oversized jar of egg-like objects. There’s even a Babadook-style children’s book that Philip appears to have drawn to accompany his puppeteering act. And let’s not forget the puppet itself: a nightmarish monstrosity that must have been designed during a dream or an acid trip, or both.
Part of what lends this film so well to repeated viewings is that it refuses to underestimate its audience by laying anything out on the table. The images are there, and it’s up to you to connect the dots, even after the revelatory ending. There are no villains carefully explaining their plans, not even a lazy flashback that puts each image into its proper chronological place. You are truly seeing the world through Philip’s eyes, and it’s more fascinating than frustrating.
I would like to point out that the only reason Sean Harris hasn’t already won a boatload of awards for this role is because of the award industry’s bias against genre films. Harris manages to put on what is almost entirely a one man show without becoming boring or posturing like a pretentious oaf. His portrayal of Philip is unflinchingly sympathetic and tragic, even through what seems to be a perpetual scowl, and his taciturn performance plays perfectly off of Alun Armstrong’s accusatory drawl, who is appropriately vile as Maurice.
If I had any complaints, they would be that the actual puppeteering angle is nowhere to be found, aside from a brief scene when Maurice reminisces about a wooden doll figure. The nervy potential of a puppet show is almost too awesome to gloss over. But at the same time, director Matthew Holness successfully indicates that Philip’s chosen vocation is a manifestation of his own damaged psyche rather than anything requiring an actual audience. Even his naming the spider puppet “Possum” hints at a metaphorical behavior that gives the film huge weight without stating anything outright.
Bottom line: POSSUM is impeccably made, well-acted, harshly symbolic, and fairly horrifying. I recommend that you do not google this movie, watch any trailers, or even search for additional stills before watching. Just put it on and open the present. If you’re well acquainted with disturbing cinema and enjoy the shudders and shivers that come with it, there’s hardly a better gift than POSSUM.
POSSUM comes out on DVD from Dark Sky Films on February 12.