Matthew Holness may well be best known for his comic alias Garth Marenghi but his feature debut is no laughing matter. Possum evokes an era of vintage horror nasties, not to mention some Lynchian surreality, to raise and rupture fairytale thematics of the darkest hue. Holness tells a chilling tale of childhood trauma and concludes with a genuinely frightening climax.
Astonishingly, Possum marks the first time the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop have provided a film with its musical accompaniment and the result is outstanding. Haunting and beguiling in its sonorous ebbs and flows, the score echoes the pioneering work of Delia Derbyshire in the sixties and lends Kit Fraser’s cinematographic brooding vistas with a heightened sense of ominous viscosity. In its heyday, the Radiophonic Workshop created the ethereal electronic soundtrack of early Doctor Who; here, that same aura of unearthliness feels perfectly pitched.
Leading a small cast, Sean Harris subverts character expectations – born of a career of menacing roles – to play disgraced children’s puppeteer Philip. The scandal that saw Philip ejected from the entertainment scene is left to our own imagination by Holness’ script, but the answer seems to lie within the brown leather bag he carries and clutches in terror. On seeing the bag’s contents, a spider-legged puppet with a ghastly human head, Philip’s Magwitch-like uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong) declares: ‘You show that to children?’ It takes evil to know evil, as it were.
Repetitive patterns comprise much of the film’s plot, which Holness drew from a self-penned novella, with Philip trudging again and again to the same sites, each time battling a compulsion to destroy Possum once and for all. In this cyclical state of psychological degradation, the film seems to channel the experience of a recurrent nightmare, one in which memory melds with imagination to exploit the dreamer’s most potent fears. There is every chance that the story we are witnessing is largely the expression of Philip’s fractured mind but Holness does well to imbue such a conceit with tangible realism. If there is a sense that Possum plays like an overlong short film at times, there remains enough mystery to keep uneasy viewers hooked.
Essentially delivering a two-hander, Harris and Armstrong showcase disturbed but consistently engaging performances. Harris’ eyes tell of a horrific history in Philip’s past, whilst his body moves with the staccato rhythm of a marionette, which leads us to conclude that he too is subject to a puppet-master. In said role, Armstrong is utterly hateful as the yellow-toothed Maurice, who retains his own secrets and unresolved conflicts. Maurice watches the torment of his nephew with devilish glee throughout the film and offers a cruelly constant reminder that all is not well in Philip’s dank and mouldy childhood home.
The titular Possum is itself a terrifying creation, pitched somewhere between Max Schreck’s Nosferatu and the monstrous spider-baby mash up created by Sid in the original Toy Story. Holness frames some fantastic images here, with highlights including the gradual reveal of Possum first as protruding legs from the bag – shot in such a way as to appear like they are emerging from Philip himself – and later in a startling bed-based jump scare. If Maurice is the wicked stepfather of the film’s fairytale structure – in the vein of The Babadook, passages of rhyming couplets overlay the visuals – Possum is the monster under Philip’s bed. By the film’s close, expect to find yourself checking that space in your own room or face a night spent fretting about what might lurk beneath.