Can You Spy Him Deep Within? Little Possum. Black As Sin
Puppeteer Philip [Harris] has returned to his home town under an air of scandal. He moves back into his derelict childhood home with only his step-father Maurice [Armstrong] for company. Through nightmarish visions and cutaways we learn that Philip carries with him a hideous puppet, a contraption with a blank human face and long, spider’s legs. Despite his best efforts to destroy it, it seemingly returns to him. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Philip’s troubled past and that an investigation is underway to find a local boy who has gone missing.
Matthew Holness’ feature debut is very much a bold statement that he is done with comedy. Audiences familiar with his previous works may expect a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek nods or winks to the audience but said individuals will be sorely disappointed as there is intentionally absolutely zero levity throughout, creating a very tense, atmospheric and uncomfortable narrative. Set in the flatlands of Norfolk, the austere landscape reflects the bleak internal workings of Philip’s psyche giving the entire film a very British feel, indicative of the grim works of Ken Loach or Paddy Considine. This Britishness is amplified with the use of a score by the Radiophonic Workshop, utilising a soundscape of eerie themes that would have been used throughout the 70s and 80s on British television – formative years for Philip, still in a state of arrested development.
With such an absence of dialogue and event, the film relies heavily on its symbolic and slow-burn visuals. This serves to highlight the grimy, grungy detail of the areas Philip inhabits, from his barren, rundown castle-like home to the deserted barracks that torment him. Everything is steeped in a depressing sense of decay and neglect which is an amazing testament to Holness’ crew. Then we have the puppet itself, which is only fleetingly seen in the first hour and even when it is completely revealed, its simplicity is part of its power. Much like the various masked killers of slasher films, the blank, emotionless face that the audience can project onto is more terrifying on a psychological level than any grimacing, toothed visage.
Holness has stated that he was inspired by German expressionism and the classic silent horror movies of early cinema and nowhere is this more apparent than the two lead performances. Both Harris and Armstrong deliver two very different but equally troubled portrayals, heavily reliant on a physicality. Maurice is a wheezily cackling villain who has so many spider-like qualities, barely moving or reacting with anything or anyone until he eventual has a sudden and violent burst of energy. Philip, on the other hand, is such a refrained character, inwardly focusing so much that his shoulders pull forward and his hands often sit neatly in front of his thighs. Almost everything about Harris’ character is seemingly driven by fear, manifested by the puppet himself.
There aren’t a great deal of negative things to say about this film, merely a few caveats catering to people’s respective tastes. As stated, the film has a very British post-war decline feel, with plenty of evidence of degradation of once happy things and places; there is a reoccurring visual of colourful balloons being engulfed in smoke and replaced by solid black balloons, which is clearly representative of the corruption of youth through traumatic events. But this will very much not be to everyone’s liking. A lot of people will watch the film and scratch their heads at the jarring editing or be put off by the long hanging shots or slow-burn pacing. Personally I feel these things all work in the film’s favour, creating something as surprisingly elegant and monstrous as the puppet itself. The only downside I could find is that the bread-crumbing for final confrontation was a touch obvious and yet could have done with a bit more of a build rather than having so much delivered in one quick scene. I appreciate this is a lot of how horror delivers its exposition but the on-going mystery of the missing teenager and Maurice’s history with Philip could have been ramped up a little neater. Furthermore, we understand that Philip has had a scandalous experience prior to the start of the film but it is never really addressed. While it was not completely necessary, some sort of explanation may have helped.
Either way, Holness’ first step into the foray of horror direction is an incredibly strong one and I have no doubt that whatever he does next will be equally unnerving and devilishly delightful.
26th October 2018
The Scene To Look Out For:
The majority of this movie is told in silent stillness, the contemplative self-reflection of an unreliable narrator. But when dialogue is used, it is brilliantly written in how haunting it is and how menacing in its delivery. Maurice questions Philip and asks him to recall a childhood story about a fox. The whole experience makes Philip incredibly uncomfortable, regaling how he and fellow students had kicked and killed a dying fox, only for him to be bullied by his friends and watch the fox supposedly get up and run away when his friends were gone. It’s not clear if this was a hallucination or if the fox itself was playing possum but the simple exchange between the two actors is genuinely enthralling and utterly appalling.
With the way the film is presented, seeing events through Philip’s eyes, it is very difficult to tell whether the character of Maurice is an actual human being or merely another manifestation. In truth I imagine he is a person but the way the film is shot and presented, it would be impossible to argue either way with absolute certainty.
“He were messing with you. Sly bugger”
In A Few Words:
“A wholly unsettling and incredibly impressive debut”