Amidst all its faux-retrospectives, wobbling sets and consciously-atrocious sound design, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace would very occasionally side-step its parodic charms and give a flash of genuinely unnerving horror. It’s this vein that Darkplace creator Matthew Holness digs at much more thoroughly in his debut feature, Possum; a nasty little piece of weirdness that – despite a formidable performance from Sean Harris – unfortunately never quite manages to hit the highs (or lows?) it reaches for.
Much of this likely lies in just how slight Possum’s core plot is; this tale of a troubled puppeteer returning to his childhood home for a grim confrontation with fate is for the most part highly predictable, and would likely have worked much better as a short rather than a full feature. Philip’s (Harris) Sisyphean quest to destroy the eponymous puppet is alternately thwarted by Philip’s own indecision, the jeering of his wicked uncle Maurice (a highly game Alun Armstrong) and the puppet’s own seeming sentience, through a series of emotionally-taxing misadventures for the puppeteer. But so much of this feels like treading water before veering into a far-too-neat climax; one that ultimately fights against the tone Holness has been toying with for the past 90 minutes.
There are, however, moments of genuine richness within the miasma of dread Holness tries to build around this skeletal plot. Sean Harris’ face is an elastic mask of fear, gurning and stretching its way through decades of pain, his stiff body language a fantastic counterpoint to the spider-like puppet he’s forever carting around in a similarly stiff duffel bag. As Harris runs through the kinds of dilapidated, fog-bound marshes and disused public buildings that define the edges of England, pushed on by a fantastic score by The Radiophonic Workshop, Holness carefully crafts a peculiarly British kind of Gothic horror; one that sits comfortably alongside the sodium-lit surrealism of Richard Ayoade’s The Double (likely-less-than-coincidentally made by another Darkplace stalwart). Similarly, the design of the titular puppet is a piece of genuine psychosexual creepiness, becoming a horrible tour-guide for this black pit of trauma we and Philip find ourselves within.
Unfortunately though, the film is too well-considered to be the feverish nightmare it aims for, and too self-conscious to be genuinely terrifying. There are glimpses of something wholly interesting for British horror in here – but like the Possum itself – in the end it just doesn’t hang together the way it’s supposed to.