In Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’, the ubiquitous founder of psychoanalysis explains that ‘The German word “unheimlich” is obviously the opposite of “heimlich” [‘homely’], “heimisch” [‘native’] – the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is “uncanny” is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.’ This particular work of Freud’s was the basis for Comma’s anthology The New Uncanny, for which the contributors were asked to reimagine the theory of the ‘uncanny’ and its presence in twenty-first century culture. One of these writers was Matthew Holness, comedian best known for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and now, in a swerve of pursuits, writer and director of one of 2018’s most talked about psychological horror films, Possum, which came to life originally as Holness’s short story in the anthology.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the backdrop of Possum instils a mood about as ‘unheimlich’ as it gets. Protagonist Philip (Sean Harris) appears as a lost man who might walk his dog through the small town you’re from at two in the morning, or sit alone at the back of your local Wetherspoons at two in the afternoon; his ‘home’ is, to the unknowing eye, a long abandoned property. Following Philip inside, you can smell the damp that festers within the sludge-brown carpet and behind the failing wallpaper; it’s an afterlife place, cold as the blue hands you might find forgotten there and a nod towards the kind of grave in which Philip himself has almost been buried alive.
Throughout the film, its viewers are dangled at an almost torturous pace between two possibilities concerning Philip’s motives, as if from a web that Possum itself, the creature from which the film takes its name, has spun. This is not an impossible thought; the film begins at the disastrous end of Philip’s puppetry career and Possum, once his puppet, now seems to take the reins, tying the string tightly around both Philip’s and the viewer’s minds.
We watch Philip thrash around in continual isolation, desperately attempting to abandon Possum’s carcass in wastelands no other human life treads, only to wake up to its face on his pillow. We endure the mockery of his uncle with him, the only other person in Philip’s life who, at first, never seems to leave their grimy kitchen table, baring his yellow teeth with stories of Philip’s grim childhood, and we stand helplessly aside as the public world casts him out with calls of ‘pervert’.
All of this pushes us into nettles of sympathy, which sting in contrast to other images we are shown: a missing teenage boy, one we know that Philip was interested in when he saw him drawing on a train earlier in the film; reports on the ancient television set, which only turns itself on when it wants Philip to watch; police searches in the woodlands and empty barracks we have previously visited with Philip when he has tried to leave Possum behind. Our brows furrow, forming new questions: is Philip not the victim?
The scenes that linger with most venom are the ones that bring Philip and Possum face to face. The disturbingly close replica of Sean Harris’s head, boiled down to its skeletal base, is as unnerving as witnessing one’s own decay. It is this subtle double act that follows us all the way through Possum and, by the end, leaves viewers with a depiction of trauma that has buried itself only a fraction as deep within our heads as in those who are forced to face their own Possum.
The ‘uncanny’ dread that rises from Holness’s psychological trip may in fact be a by-product of the realisation that, with Philip, we were actually a little closer to the familiar than originally thought, we had just never seen it with eight, tap-tapping legs before. Possum is a triumph in contemporary horror, a story that runs as if down in the sewage works of everyone else’s day to day lives and one of which you will be reminded if ever there’s a leak.
The anthology from which Possum first emerged ‘The New Uncanny’ can be bought from our website and all good retailers.