By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 22: POSSUM
Released in 2018, Possum is an award winning independent psychological horror film by British director Matthew Holness about a simple man and his puppet.
Philip Connell (Sean Harris) once worked as a puppeteer entertaining children, but has returned home jobless after an apparently disastrous performance cost him his career. We never, ever learn what went awry with this last puppetry act, and that's actually never important to the story at all. What's important is that he has nobody at home but his uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong) who raised Philip from an early age after his parents were killed in a house fire.
Possum is deliberately a slow, quiet and desolate film, light on specific plot points until they truly matter. Much of the movie consists of Philip occasionally interacting with his curmudgeony and emotionally distant uncle while he lugs a mysterious duffel bag around, and repeatedly tries to hide or destroy it, sometimes attempting to leave it in the center of a huge, spidery tree out in the woods. No matter what he does, he always finds himself retrieving the bag once again, or so we must assume, since we aren't always shown exactly how it returns to him.
The reveal of the bag's contents are gradual, but we begin to learn of a character Philip only calls "Possum," and we catch many glimpses of a strange, gangly shape before we finally see "Possum" in full glory:
Possum is a puppet Philip built at some unknown point in time; a massive, gnarled, filthy looking spider with a disturbing, corpse-pale replica of Philip's own face. We can safely surmise that this may have been involved in that last, tragic puppet show, presumably before an audience of unappreciative and artistically VAPID chilren who wouldn't know a kickass puppet design if it dragged them into the woods and ate their face. KIDS these days and their NINTENDOS, am I right?
...Well, maybe there's a little more to it than that, since a young boy has just recently gone missing in Philip's hometown, not long after he has returned home. Hoo boy.
One night, Philip awakens to the sound of Maurice reading aloud. It seems his uncle has found a very strange children's book, which we quickly realize was made by Philip himself. Not all of the dialog is clear in the film, but the text Maurice reads is as follows:
"Mother, Father, what's afoot? Only Possum, black as soot.
Mother, Father, where to tread? Far from Possum and his head.
Wait awhile, my little child, for what is playing dead.
Possum, with his black balloons will eat you up in bed.
Look at Possum, there he lies. Children, meet his lifeless eyes.
See his nasty legs and tongue. When he wakens, watch him run.
Here's a bag, now what's inside? Does he seek, or does he hide?
Can you spy him, deep within? Little Possum, black as sin.
Bag is open, growing wider. What's inside it, man or spider?
Little boy, don't lose your way. Possum wants to come and play."
Philip rarely speaks, but at one point discusses a traumatic event from his childhood with Maurice; when other children found the rotting body of a fox out in the woods, kept it in a bag they bashed around for fun and tortured Philip by shoving his head inside. While Maurice makes a small bonfire in a metal drum, he hints at some way in which he helped Philip get revenge by "scaring" the other boys. It is during this conversation that Philip finally shoves Possum into the bonfire and watches the puppet burn...but of course this doesn't help matters at all.
We have at that point seen only a few instances of Possum moving, and then only barely, but following the bonfire, Philip experiences vivid nightmares (or are they?) of Possum clambering onto his bed and finding him wherever he turns. These are kept brief and subtle, and you can enjoy a clip of what is easily one of the most haunting moments in the film:
This skin-crawling chase sequence leads Philip to locations that seem to hold meaning to him; we don't see glimpses of memory as we would in other, similar narratives, but it's obvious from Philip's reactions that unwanted memories are being triggered at every turn.
It is soon that we hear what is presumably the ending of the Possum children's book:
"The parcel opened, out it sprang, the black long-legged Possum man.
Children, run! He'll eat and smother, any child without a mother."
Philip finds himself following a strange thumping sound to a rotten, filthy old room, in which he discovers a jar of human teeth, and this evidently dredges something deeper from his past as he begins to silently cry. This moment is unambiguously very real, as he is quite suddenly slammed against a wall by a masked figure who pulls Possum's signature brown duffel bag over Philip's head.
...Is that, in fact, the same bag that once contained the dead fox, then?
A warning may be warranted for the implications of what happens next.
The two men struggle, and Philip is pinned to the ground as Uncle Maurice takes off his mask. What follows is a hideously unpleasant exchange in which Maurice taunts Philip in a clearly fetishistic manner, mocking the "broken little orphan boy" and causing Philip to regress back to childlike behavior. Maurice even reaches into Philip's mouth and tugs on his jaw as he threatens to punish him for misbehavior, and we can now guess the significance of the jar of teeth. When Maurice begins to whip Philip with his belt however, Philip hears more of the strange thumping sound, from an old trunk in the corner, and this seems to snap him out of it.
Philip turns on his uncle, and even as the old man continues to laugh and verbally abuse him, Philip rather easily snaps his abuser's neck.
He opens the trunk...and finds the missing boy in one piece, who flees the house. We don't know what becomes of Philip from there, besides the fact that he'll hopefully be cleared of any blame for his uncle's crimes. The movie ends with him only stepping outside, slumping against the wall and sitting in silence.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: POSSUM
Let's have another WARNING here for the fact that this is easily darker subject matter than almost any we've previously seen, in case you hadn't gathered. By the middle of Possum's run, viewers familiar with psychological horror might think we're headed for a reveal of Philip as the true monster, that maybe the gruesome puppet is even a stand-in for the remains of a young boy Philip has murdered. Those familiar enough with psychological horror, on the other hand, might find this such an obvious route that they will correctly suspect this is all a red herring before the final reveal.
That reveal also manages to feel absolutely brutal when it comes, and I have to commend this film on communicating Philip's traumatic past without a single cheap and easy "flashback" scene. Never are we shown graphic imagery of his abuse or snippets of his childhood on-screen, nor is even the dialog ever as explicit about is as the performances themselves. By the time the credits roll we have been told more about Philip's trauma by his facial expressions alone than by even Maurice's final ravings, by the things Philip winces and shrinks at, by how difficult it is for him to speak assertively in the presence of other adults, by the places his nightmares take him.
Of all the creatures and entities we're highlighting this month, this one is the most explicitly "unreal" within the context of the film. You can interpret it as a monstrous presence if you like, but the narrative never really suggests that it's anything other than its Philip's own trauma and terror projected onto an inanimate puppet.
So...does that necessarily mean Possum isn't a "movie monster?" Does a dreadful, nonhuman on-screen figure only count as such if it's literally real to the other characters? Does this stop being a "monster movie" the moment there's an additional layer of fiction between us and its titular creature? We have already seen some monsters here that may have existed only in the minds of other characters, so can something only count as a monster if there's the "open possibility" of its literal existence within the fictional setting?
Possum is certainly a real enough, terrifying enough presence to Philip, and born, like many monsters, from terrible circumstances that should not have happened in a just and reasonable world. We can see how the puppet itself is a chimera of everything that haunts Philip; a horrible something contained within that blasted bag, something the director has said was built by philip from Taxidermy parts, if you couldn't quite gather, its shape evocative of a tangled and partially burnt corpse, of the tree where he was presumably tormented with the dead fox, and most terribly of all like his uncle's hands, as the old man is seen moving his fingers much like the legs of a spider when he tries to take one of Philip's teeth. It's all topped off with that human head, an inexpressive and emotionless reflection of Philip himself, the ultimate symbol of Possum's monstrousness being a part of him.
...But it's that monstrousness, in the end, that not only saves a child's life, but finally ends Maurice's lifetime of pure evil and enables Philip to take vengeance. Philip would have never come home at all if the puppet had not presumably ruined his reputation as a children's entertainer, and it is only Philip's nightmares of Possum that ensure he's in the right place at the right time to face his uncle before much worse happens to the kidnapped boy.
In that sense...can a "monster," in fact, consist of literally nothing but thought, even thought that any mundane human brain could conjure? We know that Dissociative Identity Disorder exists, but it usually manifests a distinct identity or "alter" that functions at least on some level like a person, or in rare cases like a familiar animal. What Philip experiences is as if his dissociated feelings and memories have produced something else altogether, something more "built from" his trauma than "born out of" his trauma; a mental homunculus of emotional scars given shape, a thing so informed by one man's pain that it cannot even imagine itself into anything but an unnatural, creeping abomination.
But as horrific as that entity is, it comes across to me as having only the best intentions that such a tortured creation ever possibly could. It only knows the language of fear and its very shape is manifested heavily from Philip's very abuser, but its communications seem so much to me like desperate cries to help, to be helped, or both, especially given its head and face; that Possum desires and/or needs Philip to finally face what created this side of him if either one are to ever know peace. His final triumph, however, is not a glorious and exhilirating one. He's defeated the unambiguously true, human monster, even saved a life, but that doesn't free him from his pain or his loneliness. He's still "broken," with no idea where to go from here. What he's done, like Possum itself, was in the end as unpleasant and hollow as it was tragically necessary.