Among the many unpleasantries at Fright Fest in 2018 – including numerous demons, monsters, masked killers and a woman being kicked to the point of miscarriage – one really stood out. Matthew Holness’ feature length debut Possum (reviewed here) was by no means the most violent film on show, nor was it the scariest. Yet more than any others it was really nasty, getting under the skin like few films I’ve ever seen. Come the end, even the most seasoned audiences will want a shower or a pint. As a long term fan of his, having discovered him through The Office and watched his horror/ comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace to death I couldn’t wait to see him venture into full on terror. I was also glad to get the chance to speak to him about grime, puppets, audience sympathy and why he’s never had a career in comedy.
HCF: It feels weird to say this to a professional comedian, but I was surprised by how unfunny this was. Having made a career in making people laugh, was this you getting something of your chest?
Oddly enough, no. It’s never felt like I’ve made a career in comedy. Having made Darkplace, it never felt like it’d taken off for me. We wanted to make another series, and Channel 4 didn’t, so we ended up compromising on a series I’m not very proud off called Man to Man With Dean Learner – which was not in any way, shape or form the kind of show I wanted to make. And then from that point on I’ve done performances in things, but I’ve never really felt like I’ve gotten started. So a long time ago I decided if I couldn’t do a second Darkplace, if I couldn’t do what I wanted, I wondered what’s the point? In doing things other people wanted but I wouldn’t want to do myself – that wasn’t remotely interesting to me. So from that point on I knew I wanted to do something else, but I didn’t know what that was. I did a short called A Gun For George that I wanted to turn into a feature and spent a long time trying that, but it didn’t work out as I thought it would. But I’d always been doing serious stories, and short stories, which was how Possum started, and I’ve always had a love for horror films. Which wasn’t a massive stretch – there’s always the difficulty of being perceived as a comedian now wanting to make something serious. It was always hard, when pitching things, and they’d say “you’re a comedian”, so it was always a difficult balance. But it was less of a leap from comedy-horror to serious horror. So at least people would see a shared element.
HCF: It’s interesting with both genres going for very different physical responses from the audience. Like with this one, it was unnerving and really got under the skin – how grimy an image you’d created
That was the intention, and that comes from the story really. The story’s quite grim and horrible – its grimy. And I often find that when films try and display a sordid environment it can be palatable and unrealistic or its over the top, and expressionistic. I feel if you’re going to do a film in this kind of environment it’s got to be as realistic, and uncompromising as the subject is. I think part of the griminess is it’s about a very difficult subject. But unlike the crime narrative, that inherent in its structure has the forces of law and order that will hopefully prevail over evil, in this film you don’t have that safety net. So everything feels like you don’t know where you are – it displaces the viewer, because there’s nothing to hold on to. Even the lead character is someone you can’t hugely identify with from the get-go. So there’s an uncertainty and a strangeness about where the audience is as they interact with the world onscreen. You’re finding this grimy environment which is not a safe environment.
HCF: Yeah, you put the audience in a tough place with Philip, because we do come to empathise with him though we’re made aware early on he’s done something very bad
It’s important that we know what Philip’s done. But I always thought we shouldn’t, because it creates a mystery about him while creating an environment where we can both reject and accept it about him. We know he’s done something really bad, but if we know what it is then it can make us jump on the character straight away – more likely than not, you won’t sympathise or empathise with that character. But my favourite stories are often noire fiction where you have characters that aren’t necessarily nice people but they have enough to draw you in. If we knew we may reject him out of hand because he’s not an easy character to like – but that’s because nobody’s ever liked him or been there for him. So he’s got his defences up. He would hold us at arm’s-length – if we said we wanted to help him he’d put a wall up. So he’s a difficult character, but in order for the audience to care about him we can’t know too much. You wonder what he’s done, then this makes us relate it to things in our own life.
HCF: It helps that it’s also an austere script, mostly told visually
It’s partly because I’ve watched a lot of German silent films from the 1920s and, that I loved so much, and they were all about these awful psychological states you can only tap into visually. Then I thought, how could I make a modern silent horror film, and I thought about this story I’d written where the characters can’t really speak truthfully about what they’ve done – in the story, he narrates it but isn’t necessarily telling the truth – and in the film that is the sort of person that clams up and won’t talk – so he’s the sort of person who’s perfect to make a silent horror film about. Because it’s about the lack of dialogue, the lack of communication, and the wall he builds up from the outside world.
HCF: Turning to one of his co-stars – a lot of people hate puppets, a lot of people hate mannequins and a lot of people hate spiders. So you’ve combined them all to this grotesque image.
It’s interesting, because this was originally a short story I wrote for an anthology called The New Uncanny – where they asked us to look into Freud’s theory of universal fears. So the elements I took for the story were a fear of dummies and a fear of doubles. So when you combine it with the film version, and fear of spiders, you’ve got as you say three primal human fears combined into one that works in a way that Freud luckily discovered.
HCF: I’ve not read the short story yet, though did a lot change during adaptation?
Yes – a film will demand a protagonist, an antagonist and a confrontation at the end. The story doesn’t have that confrontation – it’s far stranger, what happens to him at the end. So I needed to develop the narrative. It wasn’t important to me that it had to be an accurate depiction of what I’d written. I’ve often noticed the best adaptation film will keep one thing from the book but add other elements that make it work better as a film. So I wasn’t really precious about it, and certainly in the different revisions the story’s gone through a few minor changes – so I don’t ever feel like there’s a final version. It’s the same with filming – there’s no such thing as a final shooting script because things are always going to change on set and in the edit. Whereas you get a greater sense of control as a prose writer while when you’re writing a script you are part of a process, and implementing changes from various other bodies. But essentially, yeah the story did need changed but I had no problem changing it.
HCF: You earlier touched on your love of silent German films, and along with other visual homages throughout it points to a director who’s done his homework. Have you got many specific influences as a director?
I love the ones I grew up on – the Hammer films. I loved the Terence Fisher ones in particular. But in this there’s references to some moments in silent horror films I think are just incredible. You’ve got that shot of the balloon and the telegraph pole, and it’s so expressive and evocative of what’s happened – and that’s the perfect way to deal with this sort of subject. And I thought, I need to have that kind of image in the film somewhere, so they influenced me. So did George Romero’s Martin – a really fantastic horror film. What appeals to me about it is it’s about a broken family, and a distorted, strange breakdown on an individual but also a character. And a character that’s murdered someone in such a brutal fashion in the opening sequence. And yet you stay with him and kind of empathise with him – you can do that. You can have a character that’s not pleasant but you stay with them, and there’s a way to do it, which is partly what I wanted with a character like Philip. It’s odd because I still think you couldn’t see what he’s done, and yet Martin kind of does the opposite by making him a murderer from the beginning. Just disproving everything I’ve just talked about (laughs).
HCF: Another big difference is of course in providing audio. I understand the soundtrack, by Radiophonic Workshop, was a happy coincidence.
It was – during the edit, my editor (Tommy Boulding) and I put some temporary music in. And all the ones that really met the tone of our film, and added to the atmosphere, were by the Radiophonic Workshop. And they’ve been used by various shows and films during the past year, including Dr Who episodes. They were so good, so when I asked if I could licence the tracks, to use them in the film, our music supervisor said oddly enough the actual Radiophonic Workshop are looking to score a feature film – so would I like to set up a meeting? I said absolutely, yes please, and when we met up. Then when they all watched the film, they all decided this is a film they’d really like to score. So I couldn’t believe we’d gone from asking about using a few tracks to them doing a full score – it was a really wonderful, miraculous moment. It fits so well with the film because they are soundtrack to that era, and his head is in that time. While this is not about nostalgia, far from it, it fits that they’re part of the psychological landscape of Philip’s mind.
HCF: How have the audiences taken to it so far?
They seem to have really immersed themselves in the characters, and it’s less about what happened than their ideas about the characters. They’ve thought about it, and that’s great, plus they’ve felt for the characters – and that’s really what the film’s about.
HCF: I think that’s a big part – if you get it all, or come out of it feeling it. It’s very unpleasant.
And it has to be really – it’s important to me that it couldn’t have a convenient ending as there isn’t closure for anyone whose gone through an experience like that and so it was always going to be downbeat even if he’s confronting the monster – which he needs to do.
HCF: As a final question, if this had been written by Garth, what do you think the main changes would have been?
The puppet would talk, and philosophise as well.
HCF: That’s a remake I hope we don’t see. Speaking of which, are you ever likely to go back to that?
No, unfortunately Darkplace is very much over. Sadly, that won’t happen.
HCF: And at Fright Fest you said the next film will be even darker this this one?
That’s right – I’ve written it and it’s a lot darker. Ideally I’d like to make it soon.
HCF: I look forward to it – thanks.
Thanks, same to you.
Possum is at the cinema from October 26.