The opening credits of Matthew Holness’s Possum subscribe to a grindhouse aesthetic, with the cast and crew’s names set against grainy, green-tinted still images from the film we’re about to watch. This opening is a bit misleading, however, as Possum never quite reaches the sensorial intensity suggested by these stills, what with all their scratches and burn marks. This quiet and moody film’s horror turns out to be psychological rather than bodily in nature, about buried trauma rather than specters or killers.
Philip (Sean Harris) is a strange loner living in Norfolk who carries a leather duffel bag with him wherever he goes. We see him in various places in this rural area of eastern England trying to dispose of the bag; the film’s first shot shows him standing over it in the woods, before cutting away just as something stirs inside. The film takes its time showing us the terrible thing that must surely lurk within the bag: a monstrous-looking puppet with huge, realistically sculpted spider legs and a blanched, lifelike mask of a man’s face—it resembles Philip—with a distressed expression. The puppet-creature is named Possum, as we gather from voiceover recitations of a children’s poem about it, and it’s haunting Philip. Whether he leaves it in the woods or throws it in a creek, the next day it’s back in his room, hanging on the wall.
Much of Possum consists of Philip wandering around Norfolk and staring vacantly into empty spaces, such as an abandoned military barracks, trying to find a place to dispose of his bag or, we gather later, reliving traumatic memories. These memories aren’t depicted overtly, but rather in symbolic images of Possum coming to life. Revisiting many of the same spaces, Philip seems to want to master this trauma, which may have something to do with the closed door in the run-down home he shares with a strangely hostile man named Maurice (Alun Armstrong). Every day Philip approaches the door, but he cannot bring himself to open it. What’s behind that door, always depicted with a slow and ominous tracking shot as the cacophonous score by the Radiophonic Workshop crescendos, becomes the central mystery of the film.
Philip lives in a hostile, dilapidated, and largely empty world, and he’s beset by strange visions and forced to confront the darker side of his psyche. Possum, then, recalls Eraserhead, though it lacks David Lynch’s audacious weirdness. There are some hauntingly ambiguous images—such as the recurring, anomalous shots of black smoke that billow around a bundle of colorful balloons—but when the film finally travels through that mysterious door, what lies behind it isn’t as bracingly awful as one might expect.
Possum builds toward a revelation, but for such a visually oriented, sparsely written film, that revelation is surprisingly reliant on dialogue. As a result, there’s little payoff for all the repetitive series of evocative visions and mute stares. The creeping strangeness of Possum’s atmosphere is well constructed, but Holness’s film never realizes the horrifying final confrontation with Philip’s repressed trauma that it seems to promise throughout.