The Big Picture

  • The 2018 horror film
    , Possum,
    deserves a wider release, but made only $33,225 at the box office due to limited screenings.
  • The film is a brave and challenging work with minimal dialogue and a plot reminiscent of
  • Director Matthew Holness draws on silent film influences to tell a story of psychological horror and uncanny dread.

One film that deserved a wider theatrical release was Possum. Matthew Holness’ debut had an extremely limited theatrical release in both the UK and the U.S., and the total gross was $33,225. Holness’ deeply disturbing movie is an incredibly brave film and challenging to make a film with so little dialogue and arguably, next to no plot, reminiscent of Stalker‘s repetitiveness, pace, and creeping uncanny dread.

Possum Film Poster


After returning to his childhood home, a disgraced children’s puppeteer is forced to confront his wicked stepfather and the secrets that have tortured his entire life.

Release Date
October 26, 2018

Matthew Holness

Sean Harris , Alun Armstrong , Andy Blithe , Ryan Enever , Charlie Eales , Joe Gallucci , Rohan Gotobed , Raphel Famotibe

85 Minutes

Matthew Holness

What Is ‘Possum’ About?

It begins with a series of jump-cuts and a voiceover of Phillip (Sean Harris) narrating a creepy poem, a wide-angle shot of his silhouette against an evening sky, watching a bag in a remote bedroom with a pained expression on his face before segueing into the opening titles. The BBC Radiophonic Score is accompanied by close-ups of a distressed Philip, disjointed images of the East Anglian landscape, and stop-motion animation offering a brief glimpse of what he’s hiding in that large brown bag. All the imagery is cast in sickly green and a yellow filter.

Phillip is a tortured puppeteer returning to East Anglia by train. In the seats opposite him sit a group of teenage boys, and he watches one boy, who is illustrating intently. The boy catches him looking and shuts the notepad, and they depart the train, only for Philip to follow and ask him what he was drawing. Shocked, the boy runs back to his mates. Phillip returns to a run-down house, windows boarded up, the garden overgrown, with the interior wallpaper peeling, filthy carpets, and shut doors. Upstairs he reads from a scrap/storybook about children in peril from sinister men and giant spiders. He takes the brown bag to the yard, removes the thing inside, and spots a fox watching him. Nightmares and reality overlap in Possum, often to nauseating effect. The thing has returned when he wakes from a nap.

The only other occupant in the derelict building he calls home is his creepy and filthy uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who alludes to the “scandal” that brought him back to his hometown. Philip remains monosyllabic and deflects Maurice’s barrage of questions, refusing to give a demonstration of his puppetry skills. Phillip tells Maurice the house is disgusting with its dark corridors, shuttered windows, grime, and filth covering every surface. Philip makes several more attempts to rid himself of the puppet, with each attempt failing. And when the boy from the train goes missing, he becomes the prime suspect.

Is ‘Possum’ A Ghost Story? A Haunted Children’s Tale? Just Straight-up Weird?

At first glance, Possum may appear as a back-to-basics ghost story in the vein of Johnathan Hill or Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman. It is a psychological character study about a traumatized man eking out an existence in a small town, and struggling in the aftermath of something terrible he is unable to express. Matthew Holness is firing on all cylinders: hypnagogic-induced wanderings, animal mutilation, displaced people, tainted places, and missing children. Possum echoes Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Tales from the Crypt, and the writing of Roald Dahl. Much like the animation of David Firth, it captures the essence of nightmares and a quintessentially British random air of weirdness.


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Repetitiveness works in the film. We see Philip return to the woods, and we see him on a bridge, but often we aren’t sure if these frightening sequences are dreams or reality, or a blending of both. He briefly contemplates suicide. He watches a news report, and discovers that a man fitting his description is wanted in connection with the disappearance. Maurice tells him that people are talking — he isn’t clear about what. Maurice is leaving and warns Phillip to keep a low profile. He stands at his old school gates and is warned away by a teacher. He later goes back into a childlike and distressed state demanding to see a teacher, who he hopes will take him to the police.

‘Possum’ Becomes More Bizarre as It Nears Its Ending

Adapted from Holness’s own short story in The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (first published in 2008 and reissued in 2018 by Comma Press) with each tale constructed around a Freudian prompt. The film becomes more abstract and bizarre as the story moves towards its conclusion. Nightmares and reality overlap, Phillip begins to regress to a childlike state, visions of balloons indoors are engulfed by smoke, Possum is weighed down with rocks, and he returns, hanging on the wall, or in bed face-to-face with the protagonist. Miles of empty landscape, abandoned buildings, and long empty corridors full of shadows. Maurice bullies Phillip into sharing a disturbing memory of the marshes, involving extreme animal abuse. Everything in Possum induces unease, disgust, or bewilderment.

It isn’t all sinister style over substance though. Despite only having two primary characters, Possum’s Phillip is well-developed, innocuous, and perhaps unlikeable, but it is a testament to Holness’s skill as a writer and director that we care about him by the film’s conclusion. Maurice is sleazy and malevolent with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And yet, he is depicted as perfectly human and not a complete monster. Holness remains faithful to the source material and expands a difficult short story into a feature script that might have seemed unfilmable to any other director. The allegory at the dark heart of the story is, of course, Possum the puppet, a psychological straightjacket for Phillip and this is conveyed in both a restrained and subtle way, the realization of what it represents is a gut punch for audiences.

‘Possum’ Deserves a Bigger Audience

Monster in the bed in Possum 2018
Image Via Dark Sky Films

Holness looked to the silent era of filmmaking in the expressionist cinema of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, and it is an interesting way of telling the story of a mostly-silent tortured ventriloquist who refuses to (or is unable to) express himself vocally. “Films like Nosferatu and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the 1920s version), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, these German silent horror films all fed into Possum in some way,” the director told Film4Online’s Alice Werdine. Holness has cited British Public Services from the 1970s as fundamental in helping him shape the plot of Possum. British Services Videos were designed as warnings to the public about car accidents, child abductions, or worse-case scenarios, with disturbing visual content and narrated in a nonchalant voiceover, sometimes by Jimmy Saville.

Possum takes the killer doll trope deep into the Uncanny Valley. The creature is the definition of Uncanny Valley with a disturbingly lifelike (and yet, not like any human face you’re ever going to see) human head and long, hairy spider legs. One terrifying sequence has Philip sitting on his bed with the bag at its edge. First, the legs emerge, then the face, it watches him for a few seconds, and in a fast blur of movement is nearly on him. “The thing is, often the most ‘simple’ looking and ‘low tech’ builds are the trickiest,” creature designer Adam Johansen told HeyUGuys. “Possum was a difficult puppet to build and tricky to operate as you are dealing with eight long, thin, articulated legs and a hand-puppeteered body and head. It requires multiple puppeteers to operate it.” Possum is a nightmare that deserves a bigger audience.

Possum is available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.

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