Thursday 1 November 2018

The spider stratagems: "Possum"

Matthew Holness made his bones as the creator-star of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, that for-the-ages Channel 4 comedy centred on a magnificently pompous horror hack. His feature debut Possum is no laughing matter whatsoever, in part because of Holness's willingness to leave any number of questions hanging and unresolved. Why has Sean Harris, never the most comforting of screen presences, been obliged to carry a brown overnight bag with him wherever he goes? Why does the bag contain a giant spider skeleton? Why, if it's not immediately obvious, does he seem so desperate to dispose of it? Secondary queries follow hard on their tail. Is the spider-thing just a puppet, as is claimed early on, or is it some other, more diabolical baggage? What does it have to do with the disappearance of a fourteen-year-old boy? What does Alun Armstrong - easing himself further into the seedy reprobate mode first suggested by April's Funny Cow - mean when he talks about the Harris character's "performance"? And what's the significance of the nursery rhyme that opens the film, gives it its title, and twists this already twisted narrative into perverse new shapes?

What's unquestionable is that Possum follows on from Ghost Stories in proposing a return to a very British genus of horror - that genus that was prevalent in the 1970s (era of Amicus, wayward Hammer and The Wicker Man) and may now provide an effective counter to the quiet-quiet-loud tendencies of commercial US horror, muted as it is by a strain of low-key island melancholy. Faced with this fresco of stunted men in cramped hovels lined with ghastly, mildewed wallpaper, we might extend a tentative hand to raise another query: why does everyone and almost everything appear so sweaty-pale or sickly-beige? It seems a deliberate choice on the part of a filmmaker who survived - but can still vividly recall - the monochromatic Seventies, with their shock-tactic public information films, their semi-regular nonce scares, their canals stagnant with bulging, twitching sacks. (Caught amid piles of rusting clutter, the Harris-Armstrong dysfunction has the comitragic look of Steptoe and Son.) Somewhere in here lurks the truly horrifying prospect of a green and pleasant land deprived of all its colour, sapped of any joy. Welcome, if you will, to Brexit Horror.

The credits - perfectly parodying those of the kind of moth-eaten quickie that might have toured the ABC chain in 1975 as the thrown-away half of a double-bill - hint that, as with Darkplace and Holness's clever, pulp-infused 2011 short A Gun for George (which played UK cinemas as part of the following year's The Joy of Six compilation), we're in for no more than brilliant pastiche, an attempt to recreate what might have been glimpsed on TV after dark in the dim days of the director's adolescence. In the months and years ahead, Possum will itself be seen there, and will almost certainly freak out uninitiated peepers with its black-museum's worth of macabre artefacts: that bag (no more reassuring once we learn what's inside); the spider-thing, with its humanoid cranium; the malevolent jar of gobstoppers kept on a high shelf in Armstrong's tumbledown; even Harris's humdrum donkey jacket, apparently sourced from some especially bleak moment in British labour relations.

Yet something about the protagonist's plight - and Harris's typically unwinking performance - invites a more sincere evaluation of the film's absurdity, as if the spider were a monkey the hero has to get off his back, or an awful mutation of those black dogs some talk of when they finally talk about depression. (There are clues, in a children's book whose charcoal illustrations inevitably recall The Babadook, and in Harris's own eerie sketch of a man who appears to have never known love.) If there's no definitive answer to the above questions, that's surely because Holness has realised only a hack of Garth Marenghi's low standing would feel a need to provide them. That leaves Possum a less overtly commercial proposition than Ghost Stories, which leavened its abuse narrative with built-in showmanship, and a magician's reveals; Holness actively appears to be pursuing the oppressive and suffocating, striving where possible to make these 85 minutes seem like a warped eternity. It's remarkably well-sustained for it, however, and peculiar and horrific in its own way, like poverty-row Kafka or Pinter: a hell beast that crawls some way under your skin before squatting to lay its eggs in your subconscious. God help you when they start hatching.

Possum is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via the BFI Player.

No comments:

Post a Comment