Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Matthew Holness|
|Produced by||Wayne Marc Godfrey|
|Screenplay by||Matthew Holness|
by Matthew Holness
|Music by||The Radiophonic Workshop|
|Edited by||Tommy Boulding|
|Distributed by||Dark Sky Films|
|Box office||$33,271 (Worldwide)|
Possum is a 2018 British psychological horror film written and directed by Matthew Holness in his feature film debut, starring Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong. The film centres on a disgraced children's puppeteer who returns to his childhood home, and is forced to confront the childhood abuse and trauma that he suffered.
Holness had previously worked on the cult television series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which he wrote, directed, and starred in as the title character; he also published several short stories. The film is an adaption of Holness' short story, "Possum", which was published in the horror anthology The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease.
As a fan of the horror genre, Holness stated that he much prefers horror films that "linger with you" and force the audience to reflect upon the experience afterward. The film Possum's visual style was inspired by public information films that Holness had seen during his youth. Other inspirations for the film include Dead of Night (1945), George Romero's Martin (1978), and German Expressionist films.
Possum premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 25 June 2018. It received mostly positive reviews from critics, who praised Harris' performance, atmosphere, soundtrack, and unsettling imagery.
This article needs an improved plot summary. (November 2018)
After returning to his childhood home, Phillip, a disgraced children's puppeteer, is forced to confront his wicked uncle and the secrets that have tortured his entire life. All the while he is haunted by a horrific spider-like marionette called Possum.
- Sean Harris as Philip, a disgraced and mentally unstable children's puppeteer who is haunted by the traumatic abuse that he suffered as a child at the hands of his uncle
- Alun Armstrong as Maurice, Phillip's cruel uncle, who abused Phillip while he was a child
- Simon Bubb as Mr. Evans
- Andy Blithe as Michael's Father
- Pamela Cook as Mother in Park
Concept and development
Possum marks the feature film debut of English comedian, author, and director Matthew Holness. Holness had previously worked on the cult television series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace; which he both wrote, directed, and starred in as the title character, as well as the publication of several short stories. Although normally associated with comedies, Holness himself admitted he'd always been a fan of the horror genre, but stressed that it had been difficult to break from his reputation for comedies: "To be honest I've always been in to much more serious stuff, I've written short stories and things over the years, and I've been trying to break away for doing comedy stuff for a long time. But the trouble is, if you're known for something— particularly a show that had a very strong following— it becomes quite hard to be perceived as anything else."
The film itself is an adaption of Holness' own short story of the same name, which was published in the horror anthology The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease. The story centred on a character unable to verbally and emotionally express himself due to childhood trauma, choosing instead to do so by creating a horrific puppet. The basis for the story was partially drawn from theories on the uncanny by Sigmund Freud. According to Holness, the publishers had all the writers read Freud's theory of the uncanny. The publishers then had the writers "pick a fear that appealed and write a story for a modern audience". Holness ended up choosing two, a fear of doppelgängers and a fear of ventriloquists' dummies, combining the two fears so as to avoid being clichéd. After the story's publication, Holness soon forgot about the idea until he had begun working on developing a possible horror film. Developing the film's story, Holness drew upon his love of silent films: "I'd been watching a lot of silent horror films from the ’20s and ’30. ’20s mainly. I found them so brilliantly creepy in ways that lots of other films these days aren’t, simply because they had to express everything visually and you had all these tortured psyches and tortured characters that were all being haunted by stuff that they couldn't really express. I'd watch them and then I thought, 'Could you do a modern silent horror film? How could you do that?'" Opting to make "a modern silent film", Holness was then reminded of the original short story, which he felt would fit perfectly with his idea to express as little dialogue as possible.
Writer/director Matthew Holness on the development of the film’s script
Holness revealed in June 2016 that he was working on an adaptation for one of his own short stories, titled Possum. On 3 November 2016 it was officially announced that Holness was writing and directing the film. In an interview with PopMatters, Holness stated that writing the film's script involved extending the narrative from his original short story: "Short stories are different because they can be very short, they can be just about one scene, one place, one sole thing happening. Certainly with Possum I knew I needed to extend the narrative a bit, to widen it in order for it to be a film in which nothing much on the face of it happens. It needed a bigger sense of climax and confrontation than the original story had, even though the essentials of the short story are in the film." As a fan of the horror genre, Holness stated that he much preferred horror films that 'linger with you', and forced the audience to reflect upon the experience afterwards.
Developing the characters in the film, Holness stated that he wanted to "get into the heads of the characters", describing the film as “a very bleak and understated character piece”, Holness stressed the importance of making the film 'through Philip's perspective of the world', and ensuring that the character remained morally ambiguous. According to Holness, the role of Phillip was originally written with the intention of having John Amplas, who had starred in George Romero's Martin, in the lead role. The role instead went to Sean Harris, who had responded strongly to the idea of starring in the film after reading the script. Initially Holness had been concerned whether the actor would be able to such an emotionally dark place: "the great thing about Sean is that he immerses himself in his characters and is able to go to those places and come back with something that's very affecting and truthful." Holness worked very closely with Harris on developing the character of Phillip, as Holness later recalled "We did a lot of prep work together, discussing Phillip and where he'd come from and what he'd been through, and Sean wasn't really interested in the horror side of it so much as he was getting to the truth of this character and expressing what he'd gone through for the audience." Alun Armstrong was also cast as Phillip's stepfather Maurice.
The film's "Possum" marionette was designed by Sydney-based Odd Studios. The studio had previously contributed to productions of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Alien: Covenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. According to Holness, the idea behind the creation of the marionette came from his own fear of spiders, while clarifying that in the original short story, the "Possum" was made by Phillip, who constructed it out of pieces of roadkill, and dead animals, with Holness comparing the design to that of the Frankenstein's Monster. While developing the character for the film, Holness felt that the puppet's original design was "too much", prompting the decision to conceal the creature's design for as long as possible. Part of the decision to cut back on the character's screen time came from Holness' feelings that the audience would become desensitised to the puppet's horrific appearance and thus not be as effective. As Holness later noted in an interview, "You can see something horrific, but once you've seen it, the effect wears off, which is why we kept so much of it as secret as possible."
Holness worked closely with designer and close friend Dominic Hailstone on coming up with the puppet's final design. Macabre artworks, and taxedermy were heavily referenced during the design process. As creature design supervisor Adam Johansen later stated in an interview, "We tried to achieve a very home made feel for Possum but one that is twisted and disturbing." Using the film's script, Hailstone constructed storyboards showing possible designs for the character, which he then presented to the writer/director. The character's initial design proved to be not as effective as originally thought, with Holness feeling that the puppet's face was 'too expressive'. With only a week before filming was scheduled to commence, Holness and Hailstone came up with the idea of having the character's face be inexpressive in which the audience could project their own fears onto it. Hailstone then sculpted the "Possum"'s face, which was made to resemble Harris' character, in three to four hours, with Holness approving the final design. The film's reasonably low budget and tight production schedule limited the amount of time that the studio could spend on designing and constructing the character. The head, neck, and body of the "Possum" was constructed as a simple hand puppet, with the body constructed out of foam latex and the head made out of silicone. The puppet's eight spidery legs were designed by Damian Martin, who constructed a jointed armature using multiple pick points of semi-rigid urethane, so that the puppeteering rods could be attached in multiple angles, and sides to allow more range and freedom while operating it. The puppet's complexity, including its eight limbs, required multiple puppeteers to operate it during filming.
Principal photography began on 28 November 2016, with shooting locations centred in Norfolk. Additional filming took place in Great Yarmouth, and Suffolk, with Holness referring to the locations as "stunning and completely unique". The film was shot on Kodak 35mm, with Kit Fraser functioning as the film's cinematographer, and production design by Charlotte Pearson. The setting of the original short story was based on a stretch of the coast in Kent near Whitstable. However, the setting was later changed to Norfolk, due to its similarities and atmosphere, the latter of which Holness stated contributed to the overall mood and feel of the film. Holness would later discover that the Stiffkey marshes location, where the crew had filmed, was the fabled Black Shuck was purported to haunt. Holness later describe the shooting experience as dark and very intense, stating, "there were many scenes in this film that were incredibly difficult and intense to shoot, particularly the final scene. They were dark and depressing to shoot, but that's where the truth of those scenes comes out."
Harris, a method actor of Stanislavski's system, would remain in character throughout the entirety of shooting to the point where the director felt that he was working with Phillip rather than Harris. Having only worked in television, Holness stated that the biggest difference in directing a feature film, for him, was the opportunity to work with "proper actors", who had a different discipline as opposed to television. The director also learned early in principal photography that he didn't need to shoot that many takes for scenes with Harris, as the actor "usually nailed it straight away". Both Harris and Armstrong only interacted with each other while filming their scenes together, as they wanted to create a genuine feeling of separation and tension during their scenes together.
Sound effects and experimental electronic music studio The Radiophonic Workshop composed the film's score. The studio was created by BBC in the late 1950s, composing many of the sound effects and music for channel, including the now iconic theme for the television series Doctor Who, before closing in 1998. Initially the film's editor Tommy Boulding had used old music soundtrack from BBC Radiophonic Workshop as a temporary placement for the film's soundtrack, in order to properly assess the flow of the film. Holness responded positively to the inclusion of the soundtrack, feeling that it effectively captured the main character's mental state. Holness and Boulding later met with members of the newly revived Radiophonic Workshop, in order to get permission to use the soundtrack for the film. The studio responded enthusiastically to the project after being shown the initial edit for the film, offering to compose the film's soundtrack, much to the director's surprise. Holness later offered praise to the studio's scoring of the film, "What's so brilliant about them is that it's not just music, it's sound design, it's the whole package. Now suddenly, the whole film became Phillip's." Radiophonic's score of the film also featured unreleased material by the studio's original member Delia Derbyshire.
Possum's visual style was inspired by public information films that Holness had seen during his youth. These films, which were intended to shock youth out of making bad decisions, often depicted children being kidnapped, maimed, and/or killed. The films deeply disturbed Holness, who later recalled, "They were put on between children's programming during the day; you'd see these horrific, terrifying films – you got the impression that the adult world was a very tribal place. Of course, now we know several of those films are fronted by real-life monsters". Further inspiration for the film came from silent films such as Murnau's Nosferatu. Holness also listed films such as George Romero's Martin (1978), and Dead of Night (1945) as inspiration for the film. When the film was originally announced, Holness stated in an interview with ScreenDaily, "The film draws on the dark nightmares of silent expressionist horror, British classics such as The Innocents and Don’t Look Now, as well as the claustrophobic suburban gothic of Pete Walker's Frightmare. Possum will terrify in the best tradition of classic horror cinema, evoking an atmosphere of supernatural dread and creeping horror.”
Possum made its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 25 June 2018. It was later screened at the Galway Film Fleadh on 11 July, and on 27 August at the London FrightFest Film Festival. The film was later released theatrically in the United Kingdom on 26 October 2018. That same day, the film was screened at the Dead of Night Film Festival in Liverpool. On 15 November, it was screened at the Mayhem Film Festival in the Broadway Cinema. The screening was followed by a Q&A with writer/director Holness hosted by Steven Sheil.
The film premiered in the United States at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on 12 October 2018 . The film was released via Video on Demand in the U.S. on 2 November 2018. That same day the film received a limited theatrical release, opening in five theaters in the United States.
|Soundtrack album by|
|Released||26 October 2018|
|BBC Radiophonic Workshop chronology|
The studio's soundtrack for the film was later released on CD and Digital download on 30 November 2018, with the announcement that the soundtrack would also be available on vinyl sometime in 2019. This marked the studio's first soundtrack purposely constructed for a feature film.
|1.||"Verse 1 and Main Titles"||02:56|
|5.||"Verse 2, Possum Sting and Undercurrent"||00:43|
|8.||"Legs 1 and Forest 1"||01:50|
|9.||"Legs 2 and Rumble"||00:53|
|10.||"Forest 2 and Bag Opening"||01:10|
|11.||"Marshland 1 / Anxiety"||01:24|
|12.||"Marshland 2 / Verse 3 and Nightmare 1 / Bedfellows"||03:33|
|13.||"The Fox Story"||02:22|
|14.||"The Fox Story (alternative)"||02:21|
|16.||"Newspaper / Stairs"||02:20|
|19.||"The Photograph and Fox Return"||01:30|
|20.||"Back From The Dead / Verse 4"||00:39|
|22.||"Someone At The Door"||00:52|
|27.||"Verse 5 / Breakdown"||01:01|
|28.||"Behind The Door / Mummy and Daddy / Possum-Man"||02:30|
|30.||"Arrival Home And A Demonstration (alternative)"||01:33|
|31.||"The Fox Story (alternative 2)"||02:15|
|32.||"The Barracks (alternative)"||06:05|
|36.||"Mummy and Daddy (alternative)"||01:18|
|38.||"Opening Titles (early mix)"||01:27|
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Possum holds an approval rating of 89%, based on 36 reviews, and an average rating of 7.49/10. It's consensus reads, "Unsettling and absorbing in equal measure, Possum presents a dark character study rich with rewards for fans of chilling genre fare." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 64 out of 100, based on 5 critics, indicating "generally positive reviews".
Kim Newman of Empire Magazine awarded the film 4/5 stars and praised Harris' performance, writing, "A disturbing, curiously beautiful British horror exercise. Recommended, but with a warning: next time you wake up in the middle of the night, you'll find Possum at the end of the bed." Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian gave the film 3 out of 5 stars, calling it "deadly serious, but carries with it an echo or ghost of how this same material could have been played as ironic black comedy." Neil Young of The Hollywood Reporter called it "a serious and dark journey into the labyrinths of cruelty and abuse", commending the film's acting and production design. Joseph Marczynski of Vice called it "deeply disturbing" and wrote, "Rich in symbolism but sparse in dialogue, Possum is a haunting and otherworldly exploration of Phillip's psyche as he struggles to shed the trauma of childhood abuse." Mark Butler from iNews praised the film's surreal atmosphere, unsettling imagery, soundtrack, and Harris' performance; calling it "a distinctly non-humorous, deeply unsettling psychological horror that leaves a thoroughly haunting impression." Joey Keogh from WickedHorror awarded the film 5 out of 5 stars, writing "Possum will crawl under your skin and lay eggs. It will set up camp in a dark corner of your mind and linger there, its many legs hanging ominously in wait to pounce. It's shiver-inducing, claustrophobic, hauntingly brilliant nightmare fuel, powered by an engagingly disturbing central performance from Sean Harris. It must be experienced in all its horrifying glory, but beware its dark delights." Dennis Harvey of Variety praised Harris' and Armstrong's performances, atmosphere, soundtrack, and "striking aesthetic". In his review, Harvey wrote, "Fans of conventional horror will no doubt sigh with boredom over the lack of action, but more adventurous viewers may lend this modest but distinctive enterprise its own eventual cult following." Olly Richards from Time Out London rated the film 4 out of 5 stars, praising Harris' performance, and wrote "Icky and unsettling, this British horror film crawls under your skin."
Pat Brown from Slant Magazine gave the film a negative review, criticizing the film's sparsely written script and finale, while commending the film's atmosphere and haunting imagery. Concluding his review, Brown wrote, "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." Rich Cline from Shadows on the Wall awarded the film 2 out of 5 stars. Cline praised the performances but criticized the characters and situations as having "very little definition", concluding that the film was "definitely creepy, and often very yucky, but it's far too pretentious to be scary." Dave Aldridge of the Radio Times gave the film 2 out of 5 stars, stating that the film was "too downright weird", but commended Harris' and Armstrong's performances.
|Award||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipient(s) and nominee(s)||Result||Ref.|
|Brooklyn Horror Film Festival Awards||25 October 2018||Best Actor||Sean Harris||Won|||
|Best Supporting Actor||Alun Armstrong||Won|
|Best Cinematography||Kit Fraser||Won|
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