Philip (Sean Harris) used to be a children's entertainer in the nineteen-seventies, but then his career quickly unravelled when he was accused of child abuse: suddenly nobody wanted to know him, and he was left adrift. For that reason, he has taken the train back home to the village in Norfolk where he grew up, and while in the carriage notices a group of teenage boys who are chatting, but one of them is drawing something in a sketchbook, which makes Philip feel suspicious - when the time comes to disembark, he asks the boy what he was doing and the kid runs off with his friends. So now he must figure out what to do with his puppet now he will no longer be performing...
Possum was the first feature by Matthew Holness, whose main claim to fame was his comedy character Garth Marenghi, a kind of amalgam of the likes of James Herbert, Shaun Hutson and Graham Masterton, British horror authors of a certain vintage who he felt were ripe for parody. He wasn't wrong, and the persona did very well for him, leading to his own television series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which despite picking up a loyal following was not enough to really be more than a cult hit, as was the follow-up he created with Richard Ayoade, Man to Man with Dean Learner, a spoof chat show. Yet according to this, he was serious about his love of horror.
So much so that there was not one laugh in the entirety of this film, and my, didn't you miss them? Knowing how adept he was at seeing the absurd in supposedly grim fictions, it was curious Holness did not spot that he was being so bleak here that it grew ridiculous, not in a hilarious way, more in an overplayed hand way. Take the Possum puppet: we were supposed to believe he and Philip were a children's act, but no matter how the seventies were latterly painted as the bleakest decade for pop culture, there was no chance in hell that anything like that would have been allowed on kids' TV, and Philip's barely intelligible, terminally glum delivery rendered the idea positively ludicrous.
Harris spent the whole eighty-five minutes with his mouth contorted downwards, as if he was an inspiration for a sadness emoji rather than an actual person, and the positing of him as a beloved entertainer who had a dark side was something of an insult to anyone who had been on the wrong end of an actual showbiz monster, none of whom had the same deadly demeanour that he did. Imagine if Gary Glitter had come on stage like Marilyn Manson and you had some idea of where the film was tripping up, but it was so dedicated to recreating the hauntology of those days that it was never convincing, for even the dourest of drama was not going through the exploration of apparent schizophrenia that was served up here. Back then, such a thing would be grounded in absolute reality, as befitting the seriousness of the subject.
Not helping was that once you had got past the twenty minute mark, there was really nothing more to be said aside from the twist ending that predictably let Philip off the hook, though not for any grounds of compassion, as the revelation was just as bloody miserable as the rest of it. Alun Armstrong was the only other character of any significance, an elderly relative Philip stays with and tries to persuade to do his act for him - that he doesn't is indicative of the lack of believability this otherwise tried to hide, and we don't see any footage of him on television either. You appreciated this was a low budget enterprise, and possibly most of the budget had gone on creating spider-like hand puppet, but it gave no pleasure to say Possum was a slog, like watching the end of seventies light ent behemoth The Mike Yarwood show where he went "And this is me..." only instead of a serious song, he recreated his favourite scenes from Eraserhead. You could only hope this was a phase Holness went through, and he could marry his appreciation of horror to his previous skill with laughs. Music by The Radiophonic Workshop.