In the end credit roll for Matthew Holness’s Possum, you see in the fine print that it was based on his short story of the same name, published in the anthology The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease. Weird that the source material would be buried in the credits and not shown during opening titles, as it is in most cases. I haven’t read the short story but I’m going to track it down now that I’ve seen the movie. I suspect it’s not going to be all that different from the movie, because even though it has a running time of an hour and a half, there’s perhaps only about half an hour of story.
Possum stars Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Fallout) as Philip, a mentally disturbed man who has a recent history of being a failed puppeteer who now spends most of his waking, depressed life carrying a bag around various bleak locations and interacting with the other occupant in the building where he lives, played by Alun Armstrong. What is in the bag is a large, spider-like puppet with a bald, human head. On the surface, this seems a reasonable indie horror concept, but the execution is surprisingly bereft of any kind of creativity, and the tone is flat throughout the movie. Having said that, Harris was perfectly cast – I can’t imagine any other actor who just seems to be creepy in his natural state. He might be the life and soul of the party when not acting, but even in both of his high profile Mission Impossible movies he comes off as being nobody you’d want to ride an elevator with.
I’m not the kind of person who believes that all entertainment must have a point to make, or even that movies have to be “about” anything other than what you see on the screen, but movies are more effective when they introduce themes and allegories to create a much richer experience than simply turning the audience into observers, and I never once felt like I was invested in this movie. It’s as if I was simply staring at things happening in front of me with a complete and utter detachment from Philip and his story, for want of a better word. I don’t have anything against this kind of experimental filmmaking when done well – David Lynch’s Eraserhead is maybe the finest example of this in genre film, but where Lynch’s movie was stylistically mesmerising, Matthew Holness imprints zero style on Possum. The movie is full of repetition, both in terms of visuals, plot points, and character interactions. Philip’s outdoor scenes mostly show him wandering with his bag around a handful of locations again and again where very little of any added story value happens. Compounding the miserable viewing experience is the lack of any interesting camera work. The movie is 90 minutes of static camera compositions, which is likely intentional on the part of Holness in order to create that sense of detachment in the audience. It might work in a 30 minute short, but in a feature length movie the cumulative effect is that it becomes boring to watch. Movies are a visual medium ,but Holness provides no compelling visuals to justify the run time.
In addition to this, the interior shots all take place in Philip’s building and here the set design is something I found almost comical. Every single room seems to be painted with the same Sepia-toned paint that also covers things like light switches and outlet covers. It’s overwhelming and tries too hard for the creepy house look. I’ll readily admit to being confused about this place. On the outside it looks like a typical urban family home, but inside it seems to be small flats. It’s only until the climax of the movie that the true nature of the building is revealed, which also explains the oppressive decorating inside – but by then it’s too late. You shouldn’t really be sitting through a movie thinking about set design, but there was so little else to engage me that this was one of the few elements that captured my attention.
Look, I get that Possum is a psychological horror movie, so by necessity the movie focuses on almost nothing but character, but with only a handful of repetitive character interactions sprinkled throughout a movie composed of repetitive scenes and photography, being aware of my increasing impatience and frustration while watching was a death sentence for this movie. Philip is simply a depressed, mentally ill non-entity who has nothing of interest to say or do. He’s a contrivance, an “indie horror movie character” who does nothing of any consequence, serving as creepy window dressing, performing the same function as the sepia-drenched walls of his building. Holness delivers some scant details about him as though they were administered to the audience by means of a saline drip. We hear he was a puppeteer, but we never see him doing this. We hear something in his recent past made him a pariah, but there is not even the merest hint of what that could have been. There’s no sense that at one time Philip was anything other than who he is now, that he was changed by whatever happened in his past – he’s simply an indie horror movie character.
On the matter of the puppet – it’s symbolic enough in that while it’s a real, physical object, it also represents Philip’s mental state, and Holness does bring some ambiguity to the table around that: is it really moving and following him around? You can make up your own mind, but ambiguity is clearly the direction of this element. And while I liked the look of this puppet it’s such an overly creepy design that I considered it just more window dressing. There’s no real or specific reason why it would have been designed by Philip to be that creepy, it’s just a design element to keep in with the others, so it felt contrived.
The odd thing is that the climax of the movie is completely, tonally different from the rest of it. For about an hour and a quarter it’s mostly dialogue free and directionless, but then there’s a reveal that in comparison to what has gone before seems completely unnecessary, both in the content and the heavy exposition. Holness hadn’t built up enough interest in the why of Philip’s mental illness, so to essentially have the last couple of minutes be his “origin story” was, by then, pointless for me. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “kitchen sink drama”, it was a sub-genre of British movies popularised in the ’60s dealing with the dramatic bleakness of the working class and their daily struggles. Possum is maybe the first kitchen sink horror movie. And I’m still not really sure what the title actually means, other than it referencing a poem read by characters at various times within the movie. I’ll end by giving a shout out to the score, by The Radiophonic Workshop. It’s pretty great and adds a layer of atmosphere very early on that the movie badly needs – definitely worth listening to.
I’m curious to seek out Holness’s original story, but I can’t imagine it’s anything other than a shorter version of what the movie shows. Maybe the worst thing you can do while adapting a short story into a feature length movie is to go into it wondering how you’re going to fill the run time when the source material is threadbare to begin with, but excess repetition of story elements is not how you go about it.
© Andrew Hope, 2019
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