Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum. Black as sin.”

Lugging a mysterious leather holdall, disgraced children’s entertainer Philip (Sean Harris) returns to his grim, desolate Norfolk hometown and the decaying house where he grew up under the care of his misanthropic, and possibly abusive, uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong).

Ostracised after a hinted-at incident during a show – “”You really showed that thing to children?” Maurice remarks incredulously – Philip intends to destroy the contents of the holdall; a hideous, spider puppet with a milky-white, blank, distorted humanlike face he’s named Possum.

Ridding himself of Possum proves harder than Philip thought. Whether he dumps the puppet in the garden bin, sets fire to it, tosses it in the canal or tries to abandon it in the marshes, his horrific creation, a reflection of his own fractured reality, continues to haunt him. But as the damaged, traumatised Philip grapples with his inner demons, a young, local boy, a boy Philip was the last person seen chatting to, goes missing in circumstances that eerily echo events from his own horrific childhood…

Almost the perfect film for dividing a FrightFest audience, you’ll either love Possum or you’ll hate it. I did not love it.

Brooding without ever being tense, writer/director (and artist formerly known as Garth Marenghi) Matthew Holness’s feature directorial debut is the cinematic equivalent of your fingernail ripping through the toilet paper; it leaves you feeling grubby, unclean and with a bad taste in your mouth. But that’s also its greatest strength, Holness creating a cloying, clammy atmosphere of dread and unpleasantness that hangs around like a bad smell, haunting you for days.

In many ways a spiritual sibling to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, sharing that film’s creepy children’s rhymes, oppressive sound design and unseen, scuttling horror to illustrate the disintegration of an unsound mind, Possum holds few real surprises and drags despite it’s relatively short 85-minute running time. Essentially an almost Beckettian two-hander, you could be forgiven for thinking that Sean Harris, a grunting mumbler who gives Tom Hardy a run for his money, and Alun Armstrong are in two totally different films.

As the kind of children’s entertainer no mother would leave her child alone with, Harris’s Philip is a shifty raw wound, a man unravelling, unsure not just of his own sanity but of his own innocence, a psychological and emotional wreck he is a tormented, broken soul, haunted by a legacy of childhood abuse. Alun Armstrong meanwhile gleefully tears into his malevolent, late-night sneaky uncle role, going over the top harder than the first day of the Somme as the odious Maurice. The only human interaction the isolated, self-loathing Philip has, it’s ambiguous for much of the film if Maurice even exists or whether, like Possum, he’s a manifestation of Philip’s twisted, fractured psyche.

Dark, disturbing, hugely derivative and, frankly, pretty boring, just as Harris’s Philip enters nightmarish fugue states, when Possum premiered at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, I too found myself entering a fugue state, dozing around the halfway point. But, while Possum is light on scares (and incident), it’s a muculent, grubby wallow in the dark shallows of a tortured mind that sticks with you. Holness’s comic creation Garth Marenghi used to boast that he’d written more books than he’d read. I don’t know how many books Holness has read, but he’s watched, and cribbed from, quite a few films.

Arrow Video Frightfest Review: Possum
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