'Possum' Director Matthew Holness Believes Horror Can Confront Society's Monsters

Possum, out now in theaters and on VOD, is about a puppet master and his puppet, a story nearly as old as horror movies themselves, featured in everything from Goosebumps to the 1945 British anthology horror movie Dead of Night. Not always, but often, whatever dark persona the puppet embodies grows in strength, until, soon, puppet and master are reversed. In Possum, Philip (Sean Harris) may be the human, but his puppet Possum has no master.

When Possum opens, Philip is returning home, to the house he inherited from his mother and father, still occupied by his Uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong). The shape of the movie, every moment, reflects Philip's psychological state. Harris plays Philip with a bottled intensity, his shoulders folded in so tight that implosion always seems more likely than an outburst.

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Sean Harris as Philip in "Possum." Dark Sky Films

When writer and director Matthew Holness talks about Possum, he's always talking about Philip.

I expressed how for much of the movie I was uncertain, sometimes leaning way one or the other, whether Philip's distress was about something terrible that had happened to him, or something terrible he'd done to someone else. "Those are the questions that are deliberately placed before the viewer," Holness responded. "There's a lot of things we don't know about Philip. We don't know what this supposed scandal is that Maurice refers to. We don't know, really, whether Philip is a good or a bad person."

Possum can't tell the audience too much about Philip because, Holness says, "Philip is not someone who would trust any other human being. He would put his guard up and not let anyone in. So it had to be truthful to that." But it's also because Philip's trauma is there whether we know its cause or not; whether he's a good person or not. The spider puppet, or what it represents, alters the entire shape of his life, in ways that are obvious without knowing the specifics of his biography.

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We examine Philip as he examines himself. Dark Sky Films

Early reactions from the United Kingdom to Holness' first feature have often opened with surprise at how little in common the horror movie has with Holness' comedic series, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which lovingly skewered pulpy TV and paperback horror alike through its narrator, fictional horror novelist Marenghi (played by Holness). American audiences are less likely to be thrown by the contrast, but both Darkplace and Possum have in common a master-level understanding of the genre, simply bent to different ends. In Possum, Holness uses some of the oldest and well-worn tools in horror to recreate the psychological sensations of trauma and abuse, demanding of horror more than thrills and jumps.

"I'd been watching a lot of German Expressionist horror films from the early 20s and what I love about those films is that they're essentially about war trauma," Holness said. "They're characters coming to terms with what they've witnessed and horror so great it can't be described straightforwardly."

Possum is about a similar trauma, which like war, both destroys individuals and leaves a mark on the entire society: Operation Yewtree, the police investigation into a child sexual abuse ring that encompassed powerful media figures, particularly all-around celebrity and children's television presenter Jimmy Savile, who perpetrated potentially hundreds of rapes as those around him actively covered-up or looked away from his crimes.

"They are the monsters of our time," Holness said. "It was this strange kind of institutionalized injustice. We were presented with these moral guardians, who were in fact the worst monsters. And it struck me that horror films should be able to confront that monster. And they don't often, actually."

Holness argues that horror is uniquely qualified for capturing the subjective experience psychological damage, because it doesn't have the same retreats of other types of story. "There's alway the forces of justice fighting against the evil. You get an in-built sense of the laws of justice. So, that's reassuring, because you know someone is fighting for good. Horror films don't necessarily have that," he said. "If we are going to deal with these monsters in any way, why not the horror film? That is true horror."

But trauma is specific. Systemic injustice is no more a horror monster than stress dreams are Freddy Krueger. So Possum is entirely embodied in Philip, a stunted adult, who can't bring himself to destroy his awful puppet—the embodiment of his terrible burden.

Like if Jan Švankmajer rebooted The Muppets, the Possum puppet is a nightmarish creation, with long, hairy legs that look both bristlingly, tarantula-real and worn enough to have set (or maybe hung from a hook), disused in a grandparent's attic for a decade or two. Its face, originally meant to look like Max Schreck's of Nosferatu, took on a more placid expression in later designs.

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Possum emerges from Philips bag in the "Possum" movie poster. Dark Sky Films

"It was too emotive," Possum writer and director Matthew Holness told Newsweek, "it looked like a goblin, really."

It was replaced with a blank expression.

"You want the audience to decide for themselves why they think it's creepy," Holness said. "It's very terrifying because you didn't know what it was doing or why."

That ambiguity runs throughout Possum. We "know" it's only alive in Philip's head, but it always look poised to pounce. "It's that notion of playing possum: is it real, will it wake up, is it alive? I was trying to keep this sense of when will it move? Will it move? I think it's important to have one or two good jump scares if you can get them," Holness said, adding "if you get a poor jump scare film, I can't really see the point."

But Possum isn't the real monster. And Possum isn't like other killer puppet movies. Instead, Holness starts his movie where most puppet movies end. "All those films invariably end with the puppeteer having a psychological breakdown. What I found interesting was to pick up that story at this point. It's a puppeteer when they are already at the breakdown."

By dilating that single moment of crisis into the full narrative, Holness accomplishes more than sustained dread. Instead, he's dramatizing the endless claustrophobia and constant imperilment of a damaged man, whose trauma has followed him from childhood and now taken shape. Rather than simply retelling an old story, Possum takes it seriously for real-world dangers that created it, just like Grimm's Fairy Tales contain, at their core, real warnings. This balance, between horror movies as a genre and a vessel for the worst of the real world, makes Possum an uncommonly haunting and emotionally complex experience.

Possum is out now in select theaters and on VOD.