It's a rare gift indeed to conjure up a seething atmosphere of dread in modern horror films, with today's offerings often feeling like tired retreads of previous cinematic manifestations.
British filmmaker Matthew Holness' upcoming indie release, Possum, is one of those haunting, unexpected surprises that will freeze your nerves and grip your brain with its slow burn of nightmarish terror. SYFY WIRE has scored a creator chat and exclusive stills to awaken new nightmares as Halloween approaches.
Dark Sky Films' Possum follows the mad descent of a disgraced children's puppeteer who must come to terms wth his brooding, sinister stepfather and a grotesque puppet he keeps hidden in an old brown leather bag to distance himself from the unspeakable horrors of his past.
This certifiably creepy movie is Holness' debut feature and stars Sean Harris (Prometheus' doomed geologist Fifield) and the great Alun Armstrong of Braveheart and Sleepy Hollow fame. It also showcases an equally unnerving original musical score by The Radiophonic Workshop.
Besides writing and helming Possum, Holness is also an accomplished author whose eerie short stories have appeared in many horror anthologies like Phobic: Modern Horror Stories and The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Holness about his twisted inspirations and influences for Possum, living next to Peter Cushing, audiences' reactions to its film festival screenings, and what audiences can expect when this sleeper horror hit is unleased on US theaters and VOD on Nov. 2.
What was the genesis of Possum and how has it been received at film festivals?
MATTHEW HOLNESS: I was invited by Comma Press to contribute to a new anthology of horror fiction called 'The New Uncanny'. They asked various writers to examine Freud's essay on the Uncanny ( a discussion of essential human fears) and select one to write up as a modern horror story for contemporary readers. I chose two, the fear of dummies and the fear of doubles. I liked the idea of combining those two, imagining a puppeteer that had constructed a gruesome dummy, replicating his own features. That sense of troubled psychology appealed to me. What kind of person would do this and why?
Later, I'd been looking to create a modern silent horror film and Possum felt like the perfect fit. A story about someone so traumatised that they cannot communicate the horrors of their past to anyone but themselves - and then only through a monstrous puppet - seemed like the perfect 'voice' for a silent film.
The film has been received well at screenings and festivals. Audiences seem genuinely interested in Philip's story, and what's driving him to do what he does.
Can you take us on a quick tour of the strange plot of this unsettling horror flick?
Essentially, Philip, a troubled loner, returns to his childhood home with a puppet he keeps in a brown leather holdall. His intention is to destroy it, but Possum, we soon learn, has other plans...
Anything more than that's a spoiler, so go see the film! A brief warning, though. The tone of the film is extremely dark. I'm known mainly for my comedy background, but there's nothing remotely funny in Possum. No ray of light whatsoever...
What was your gateway into horror or sci-fi and what influences did you bring to the project?
I grew up obsessed with all things horror - books, tv, toys, even crisps (Smiths Horror Bags, 'Fangs', 'Ribs' and 'Bones'!). I also lived in the same town as Peter Cushing and even met him on a few occasions, so, for a young boy to know that Van Helsing lived a few streets away was a unique feeling growing up. I think Hammer films are behind everything I write, in a way. I watched them religiously and still get that incredible suspension of disbelief whenever I put one on. The dark, fairytale lands of Terence Fisher are as real to me now as they were then.
For Possum, my chief inspirations were old silent horror films. They perfected a way of expressing the inexpressible through visuals alone. They allowed stories about trauma and wartime horrors to be expressed within the relative 'safety' of a gothic horror narrative. That, too, felt like a perfect way of handling the dark realities underlying Possum, without feeling exploitative in any way.
George A Romero's Martin was, equally, a huge inspiration. It's one of my favourite horror films, and demonstrates quite remarkably that you can have a film where the main protagonist is revealed as a 'bad guy' in the first five minutes, and yet somehow still root for him throughout. Meanwhile, the warped, dysfunctional family unit and decaying geography of that film were key elements I wanted to emulate. A small film combining gothic fairytale with contemporary ruin, both geographical and psychological.
To what do you attribute Possum's disturbing visual style?
Visually, old public information films originally created by the Central Office of Information were a big influence, too. These would have formed the background to Philip's childhood (as they did most UK kids growing up around then) and are uniquely terrifying, especially now. One or two were fronted by real-life monsters masquerading as our own moral guardians. That essential paradox and sense of institutionalised cruelty and injustice forms the emotional core of Possum.