Studio: Dark Sky Films
Director: Matthew Holness
Writer: Matthew Holness
Producer: James Harris, Mark Lane, Robert Jones, Wayne Marc Godfrey
Stars: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong
A disturbed puppeteer returns to his childhood home to confront a haunting family secret connected to a missing boy.
For a solid 10 minutes, some might say longer, “Possum” doesn’t make much narrative sense. Every sentence in the forthcoming summary can be followed by “for some reason” to highlight an artistically intentional, yet no less vexing lack of context in early exposition.
In voiceover, puppeteer Philip Connell reads rhyming passages from a storybook he wrote as a child. Accompanying imagery depicts Philip opening a leather bag in a forest. Spiderlike legs on a possibly anthropomorphic puppet poke out from inside.
Disgraced by an unspecified scandal, Philip takes his bag on a train headed toward his hometown of Marshwood. Philip oddly eyes a teenage boy sketching on the train. When Philip sidles up to ask unsolicited, “what were you drawing,” the boy shoots a cross glare and leaves.
Philip arrives at the house where he was raised. There’s a specific room he won’t enter. Black smoke seeps out of wallpaper to envelop yellow and orange balloons. Philip asks out loud for a man named Maurice, who doesn’t answer. After taking his bag to a barrel outside and stuffing his puppet into it, Philip stares down a stray fox as though renewing a longstanding rivalry.
That’s the strange style “Possum” exhibits. It’s a macabre mood piece molded from cryptic characterizations, interpretive inferences, and non-sequitur cutaways to symbolic scenery that may or may not be part of the populace in Philip’s fractured mind.
Shot on 35mm film, “Possum” opens with a blurred and dirtied credits sequence ending on a title card with a copyright date. Coupled with weird woodwind warbles provided by The Radiophonic Workshop, the original incarnation of which scored BBC programs such as “Doctor Who,” the segment means to evoke a feel akin to British chillers of the 1970s. The movie itself doesn’t echo that timbre as loudly, though it does unsettle as a patient psychological portrait of a haunted man.
Genre fans popularly recognize writer/director Matthew Holness as his onscreen alter ego Garth Marenghi. Take heed that not even a faint whiff of “Darkplace’s” satirical tone exists in “Possum’s” purposely humorless horror. Although its themes are implied more than they are given graphic representation, viewers sensitive to subject matter involving child abuse should be aware that triggering traumas motivate both tension and mystery in the movie.
Disturbing drama puts a shaky foundation beneath the film’s feet. “Possum” then doubles down on discomfort by drafting a problematic protagonist to tread that ground. Swaddled in a heavy suggestion that he may be a murderous molester responsible for a 14-year-old boy’s disappearance, Philip morphs into an unsympathetic person nigh impossible to root for. Consequently, “Possum” distances itself from audience intimacy by extending another arm discouraging vicarious involvement.
To be sure, Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong are quite effective at making Philip eerily enigmatic and Uncle Maurice disgustingly unseemly. None of the few supporting players tally more than 30 seconds of screentime, effectively making “Possum” a deconstruction of one man’s tortured psyche interspersed with confrontations featuring the man responsible for that torment. An example conversation between the two men plays out like this:
“Something from the jar?”
“What’s in them?”
“Same as always.”
“All grown up now.”
It’s not a challenge to decipher the meaning behind such an exchange regarding a sinister connotation to Maurice’s sweets. It’s merely indicative of the way Philip and Maurice often speak indirectly. “Possum” always elects to tighten atmosphere through unspoken insinuations and dream logic sequencing over unmistakably tangible actions.
But one can only see Sean Harris glumly grimacing like the sides of his mouth are about to fall from his face so many times before a “get on with it” desire ignites. Cyclical scenes of vague visions and dour demeanors really wear down engagement as the creepy character study trudges onward.
“Possum’s” peculiarities very much make it a “your mileage may vary” experience. An arthouse skin applied over upsetting images and ideas brews a niche tea poised to burn some tongues while pleasing other palates. Despite its deceptively Spartan setup and relatively short duration, “Possum” probably requires a second viewing to uncover the nuances hiding in initially ambiguous fiction. No matter how much it appeals to personal tastes however, “Possum” isn’t the type of inviting excursion to inspire booking that return visit too soon after the first.
Review Score: 50