Though it originally ran for just six episodes in 2004, the U.K. TV series “Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace” — an inspired spoof of supernatural anthology shows, among other things — has acquired a still-growing cult following. Its principal collaborators have all forged interesting careers since, with two recently making their feature writing-directing debuts. Released last year, cast member Alice Lowe’s “Prevenge” was a macabre piece about a unbalanced woman who starts believing her unborn child is ordering her to kill. “Darkplace” co-creator/star Matthew Holness’ new “Possum” is also about madness, being a psychological horror in which nearly all the terrors (both seen and unseen) may simply be figments of a severely withdrawn protagonist’s haunted imagination.
In script terms, Holness straddles the line between “minimalist” and “underdeveloped.” There are times when it feels like “Possum” (named after a creepy children’s rhyme much recited here) would have had its slender narrative better served by a 20-minute or half-hour short. Nonetheless, the film has a striking aesthetic and atmospheric assurance that takes a particular British miserabilism into near-abstract terrain, not unlike Cronenberg’s vaguely similar (if more rigorously plotted) “Spider.”
If you’ve dreamed of “Ken Loach’s ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’” here is the closest such thing anyone is likely to ever commit to celluloid. (And “Possum’s” loamy air of decay is indeed enhanced by being shot on Kodak 35mm.) Fans of conventional horror will no doubt sigh with boredom over the lack of action, but more adventurous viewers may lend this modest but distinctive enterprise its own eventual cult following. It opens Nov. 2 on five U.S. screens, simultaneous with digital-formats release.
Uneasily disembarking a train from parts unknown, Philip (Sean Harris) is a pasty-faced, slump-shouldered, raincoat-wearing misfit of the type that makes strangers might hurried dismiss as some kind of pervert. Seemingly coming “home” to Norfolk after a long absence, he arrives at a squalid old house that at first seems abandoned. Then it turns out it to be inhabited still by Uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong), a grinning coot with the sinister mateyness of characters in early Pinter plays.
At least it seems so — yet we have already begun to doubt the veracity of Philip’s viewpoint, particularly once we’ve grasped his apparent mission here. Apparently, he’s been a puppeteer and has come back to dispose of a hideous homemade marionette in the form of a giant spider with death’s-head face.
It’s bad enough that he keeps trying to abandon it in various lonely places, only to end up in possession of the thing yet again. Worse still is that in “Possum’s” blur between reality, delusion, childhood flashback, and nightmare, the terrifying creature keeps moving around on its own power, forever scuttling just out of sight.
Keeping mostly to himself between queasy interactions with “Uncle,” wandering the local marshlands and a disused military base, Philip seems both victim and perp. Reports circulate that a teenage boy is missing — one he briefly interacted with on the train. Is Philip so damaged he might commit a crime, then bury both body and memory? How did he get so damaged, anyway?
The answer finally arrives in a fashion that seems at once abrupt and inevitable, not to mention perhaps too literal-minded for a movie that has so artfully clouded all certainty until then. But if this wrap-up proves less than fully satisfying, “Possum” still casts an impressive spell. It’s clammy in the same way as films from “Repulsion” to Simon Rumley’s “The Living and the Dead,” forcing us to share a main character’s paranoid instability.
Harris, prominently featured in the last two “Mission: Impossible” movies, gives a performance as physically stylized as Conrad Veidt’s in the original “Caligari” — with a similar effect of monstrous pathos. Veteran character actor Armstrong is expectedly on point as a figure whose manner manages to be equally insinuating, malicious, and repellent.
If there’s a bit of the Brothers Quay to the briefly-glimpsed creepy crawlings of the puppet-ghoul, there’s more of a kitchen-sink-realism-in-extremis feel to the film’s primary visual packaging elements. Kit Fraser’s cinematography, Charlotte Pearson’s production design (espescially for “Uncle’s” alarmingly decrepit house), and the astute location choices make something complexly artful of the dank and unsanitary. The unsettled, unsettling score is by the Radiophonic Workshop, an ensemble of British experimental electronic musicians whose work for the BBC and elsewhere stretches back over half a century.