Possum (2018) ****

October 22nd, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Matthew Holness | Cast: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong | 82′ | UK |

Writer-director Matthew Holness’ impressive feature debut is given considerable resonance by outstanding performances from Sean Harris as a traumatised puppeteer locked in toxic turmoil with his abusive uncle (Alun Armstrong).

Very much genre festival fare and unlikely to appeal to mainstream audiences this low-budget psychological thriller scratches at the edges of horror telling a tale of childhood trauma and abuse revisited on an adult puppeteer Philip (Harris) who desperate to escape the emotional clutches of his noncey uncle Maurice (Armstrong) who still holds him in thrall after decades of abuse following the death of his parents in a fire. In this lugubrious labour of toxic trauma, Philip tries to eradicate his childhood – represented by a spindly, spider-like puppet (the head is an replica of the actor’s) – while perpetually playing out a macabre dance of desperate dysfunction with his uncle. Philip detests Maurice yet can’t live without him: a momentary failure to locate the demon despot in their grimy shared coffin of a crib sends him spinning into full blown psychosis. 

Set in dank and desolate part of the Norfolk marshes this atmospheric tribute to the British nasty fare of the Seventies often feels quite stagey in its interior settings which take place in a decrepit, boarded-up 1930s hovel, but the surrounding locations really bring home what it meant to grow up in an England of second rate secondary modern schools where family members and figures of authority still inspired dread in those whose lives they controlled.

Returning to his childhood home as a 50-year old the outwardly morose and troubled Philip still recalls each painful flinch of his abusive upbringing as fleeting expressions of trauma haunt his pinched face, like passing clouds on a stormy night. His wiry body is contorted and tortured by the terror of his young days; shoulders and hands writhing and gurning in memory of the misery. And we feel for him despite his ghastly appearance and unappealing persona.

Slim of narrative but rich in atmosphere this slow-burning shocker gradually throws up clues to the past in an enigmatic storyline that occasionally feels repetitive in the first two acts despite a meagre running time of 82 minutes. But the final denouement pays off with its gratifying themes of retribution and redemption. 

This splendidly stylised horror outing is shot on 35mm by DoP Kit Fraser, complete with a scary score from the Radiophonic Workshop (which formerly provided the sounded effects for Dr Who – Holness is best know for his TV work). But Possum really belongs to Sea Harris giving him full rein to his flex his considerable talents as one of the best British actors on the contemporary scene. MT 



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