Review by Annie Riordan
Starring: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong.
You know how when the bath tub drain gets clogged and you spend, like, a week standing in ankle deep water every time you shower until you finally break down and call the plumber, and the plumber comes out and sticks that long snake down into that dark drain hole where everything is eternally spongy and slimed with slick black goop, and when that snake comes back up, it’s got a big drippy snarl of rotting hair clinging to the end of it like a black octopus, dripping strings of fetid sewage.
Now, imagine having to eat that.
All of it.
That’s as close as I can come to describing what it’s like to watch Possum.
And that IS a compliment.
I fucking love Sean Harris. I’ve loved him since 2004’s Creep, which wasn’t a great movie by any means, but which wasn’t all that bad either. Harris – as the scabrous, screeching, semi-aborted creep of the title, haunting the tube stations below London – turned a ho-hum slasher into every woman’s worst case scenario pelvic exam from Hell. As Stretch in 2009’s Harry Brown, Harris was an open sore on legs, oozing ice-cold ickiness from every festering scab. Totally wasted in the disappointing Prometheus and the abysmally shitty Deliver Us From Evil (which also saw Eric Bana’s talents pissed away down the proverbial toilet, but that’s another article) Harris has finally found the perfect dark crack in the cellar floor in which to wedge himself in Possum, an incredibly upsetting and miserably icky film if ever there was one.
Harris does not play the part of Philip in this film: he crawls inside the character’s hollowed out carcass, for Philip is surely the emptiest, coldest, grimmest man in England, a meat vehicle on autopilot, stiffly marching through life with no purpose, no love and no joy at all. Philip has mastered the art of turning his nearly nonexistent lips into a perfect upside-down U, a grimace which at times seems to be the only way to keep a huge and horrible scream locked inside of his mouth. Stuffed inside of the huge and heavy carpetbag he carries with him everywhere he goes is the personification of all his grief, rage, and repressed fears: a hideous marionette named Possum.
With a white ceramic face void of expression and eight hairy dangling spider legs, Possum makes that fucking spider-legged kewpie doll from 2004’s Night Watch seem absolutely cuddly by comparison. For reasons unknown and unfathomable, Philip apparently thought it was a good idea to construct this thing and perform with it in public. In front of children, for fucks sake. But something went wrong. We’re never told exactly what, but I can only imagine the ghastly, agonized sobs of some traumatized preschoolers rising up over London like a hellish fog in the aftermath. Philip, shunned and shamed, returns home. Unfortunately, home is a squalid flat in some dismal little town. You can almost smell the mildew beneath the yellowed wallpaper, and imagine the horrifying thick black fuzz accumulating over the contents of the fridge.
Waiting for Philip is his – stepfather? Uncle? I’ve read articles that suggested either/or – Maurice (the eternally amazing Alun Armstrong), a nasty, chain-smoking old bastard with bleary rats eyes and a mouthful of rotting teeth. If he’s not the author of Philip’s misery, he’s certainly the master puppeteer. The art of marionette making runs in the family, you see, and Maurice knows which strings to tug for maximum effect. His hard, rheumy stare and cruel laughter have worn Philip down to a bony stub. Maurice is cancer incarnate and he’s entrenched himself into Philip’s house and life like a big, rubbery tumor. We don’t know exactly what horrible things are lurking and squirming in Philip’s childhood and neither man is forthcoming with details. They skitter around the subject – a single word, a poisoned side eye, both men teetering on the brink of an enormous abyss. Hints come in the form of symbols tucked away in dreams: a jar of sickly green sweets, orange and yellow balloons consumed by tendrils of black smoke, a spidery tree. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what trauma(s) lie in Philips past. We all have a particular horror lurking in our childhood, a stark moment in time when we were suddenly made aware of pain and mortality. We all have a possum on its back somewhere in our subconscious, just waiting for the right catalyst to flip it over and start it scuttling towards us in a rabid frenzy.
Meanwhile, buried beneath the wormy topsoil of Philip and Maurice’s ugly relationship, a fourteen year old boy has gone missing. And Philip is incapable of making himself look not totally suspicious at all: wandering around town, hanging out in empty playgrounds, staring moodily at school buildings, drawing stares and pointed fingers and shuddery recoils. No one ever comes right out and accuses him of having committed a crime, except perhaps for Philip himself. And Possum. Little Possum, black as sin. Staring accusingly from the corner, following Philip down dark hallways, around sunny corners, crawling into bed with him uninvited. Possum cannot be destroyed, try though Philip might. Beaten, burned, drowned and discarded, Possum always comes back. Possum never left. Our possums never do. And unless dealt with, they grow ever bigger, ever more fetid and obstructive…like a nasty snarl of gunk in the bath tub drain.
Containing echoes of such films like Begotten, Magic, Babadook, It, and many others, Possum is strong enough to stand on its own eight legs as a uniquely devastating and wholly unpleasant experience in horror. It’s not a film you need or would even want to watch over and over again – once is enough, thanks to the perfect marriage of masterful acting by both Harris and Armstrong and a backdrop so bleak and cold it will haunt you long after it’s over. You won’t forget Possum, no matter how hard you try.