Directed by: Matthew Holness, Starring: Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong. Psychological horror,
UK 2018, 82mins, Cert 15.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD by Bulldog Film Distribution on 4th March 2019.

 

Matthew Holness’ first feature is based on his short story originally written for an anthology themed around Freud’s essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (trans.‘The Uncanny’). It’s therefore a far cry from Holness’s British horror parody television series ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place’.

 

Receiving its English premiere at FrightFest 2018, it’s a stark, bleak, nightmarish portrayal of a man haunted by past traumas, and his despairing attempts to unburden himself of his emotional baggage. Returning to his grim, semi-condemned Norfolk childhood home, disgraced former children’s puppeteer Philip (Sean Harris) clutches a brown holdall which contains ‘Possum’, a hideous marionette with tendril spider legs and a ghostly doll’s head, borne from a nursery rhymed creation drawn by Philip. Plagued by nightmares where an animated ‘Possum’ crawls towards him, Philip makes several attempts to discard the puppet, without success. He also has his creepy dishevelled stepfather Maurice (Alun Armstrong) alternating between offering him sweets and rollups and taunting him about the disappearance of a 14-year old schoolboy. There’s also a room in the old house Philip seems more than a little reluctant to enter...

 

An expressionistic suburban nightmare, dripping in a haunting 70’s atmosphere of dread, with jolting moments of disturbing imagery. It’s narrative light, with Pinter-like minimalist dialogue, but The Radiophonic Workshop’s evocative soundtrack permeates every frame saturating the film with a melancholic menace that beautifully conveys the somnambulist nature of Phillips waking nightmares.

 

The Norfolk locations are brilliantly bleak and haunting. The open marshlands conveying the spirit of M.R. James as Phillip runs through muddied landscapes pursued by the invisible ghosts of his haunted past.

 

Sean Harris is superb as the broken damaged ex-puppeteer, and Alun Armstrong is grotesquely effective as the stepfather from hell.

 

Filmed on Kodak 35mm, the blackened grimy gloom of the burnt childhood home seemingly drips with inherent sadness and past terror, and the stark loneliness of the open landscapes offers bleak comfort as images of black balloons float in the sky.

 

The abrupt and literal denouement jolts the viewer out of the seductive fever dream state and feels out of step with the meticulous Danse Macabre so carefully orchestrated to this point. But, equally, they’d surely be groans of complaint were proceedings left unresolved.

 

Early David Lynch, Jan Švankmajer and even Pete Walker could be considered as influences in this disturbingly assured first feature. It will be interesting to see just what Holness pulls out of the bag next.

 

Extras: None on the DVD/Digital HD release, but the Blu-ray has an audio commentary with director Matthew Holness and cinematographer Kit Fraser, an artwork gallery and two early short films.

 

Paul Worts

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