SPOILERS! VERY BIG SPOILERS, EVEN ABOUT THE BIG TWIST AT THE END!!
Over fall break, I came across a psychological horror movie called ‘Possum’. It was released in 2018, and the reviews seemed to point out that it was very chilling and disturbing, but maybe not enough to count as your usual horror movie. Let me just say the concepts that the movie touches upon and the visuals are not for the faint of heart. But once you get past that, the movie reveals itself to be a horrific masterpiece, with a particular cinematography that boosts the eerie and unsettling atmosphere.
The story goes like this: a former puppeteer, Philip, returns to his childhood home. With him, he carries a large bag that holds his puppet inside. He tries to get rid of it, but it always ends up coming back to him; sometimes, he can’t seem to sit with the fact that he got rid of it. In the house, there’s another character, Maurice. He is Philip’s uncle and presumably started living with Philip ever since his parents perished in a fire.
From their interactions, you can tell that they don’t have the best relationship, but they somehow make do. Alongside following Philip’s struggle, the movie also launches a new plotline – one about a missing schoolboy. Philip becomes the prime suspect as he is the last person seen interacting with him in a suspicious manner. So, while he tries to get rid of the puppet he has, he also has to be on the lookout for the police trying to arrest him.
Towards the end, Philip goes into the one room he keeps refusing to go into and ends up getting attacked by his uncle, who is revealed to have abused Philip during his childhood. However, Philip sees a big luggage bag rattle, and he turns the table on the fight that he’s having with Maurice. Philip ends up killing his uncle, and he opens up the luggage in which the kidnapped schoolboy is being held captive. The movie ends with Philip sitting outside the house, with the head of his puppet with him and the legs of the puppet in the trash.
The time warps, cuts, and jumps, making Philip a very unreliable narrator. While that is true, I have never felt like Philip had malice in him. He was tattered and broken inside, for sure, and he didn’t have that poise and ability to interact with others in a more ‘normal’ manner. But he did not seem like he could kidnap a schoolboy.
I watched a few YouTube videos that tried to interpret what the movie was all about. But I didn’t like any of them because they always came to the same conclusion that Maurice was a figment of Philip’s imagination, and Philip kidnapped the boy in his depressive, psychotic, and unstable state of mind. I don’t like this interpretation because it puts Philip under the label of a ‘victim turned perpetrator’.
The movie does paint him as a weirdo, a potential criminal, or a pedophile, but what’s the justification? People jump to conclusions too easily, especially if others act in ways that are out of the ordinary. Philip mumbles, stares, is hunched over, and always carries a big bag. People use these cues and turn them into evidence that Philip is a strange man with malicious intent. In the movie, some passerby calls him a pervert, and Philip can do nothing but stare them down. With years of physical and mental abuse, it’s not strange that he’s bad at interacting with people and that he can’t communicate his feelings in a way that others do.
Perhaps it was the director’s intention to turn the audience into the ‘others’ in the movie who look down upon Philip in disdain or think that he’s a criminal. But once you really dig into the way Philip is, he’s just a bad communicator. I felt so bad for him when he was turned away from the school that he went to as a child just because he seemed restless. He had lost his childhood to a disgusting man who abused a child at his most devastating times.
There are so many symbolism and metaphors lurking in the shadows in this film; I might not have gotten all of them (since I was squinting at the screen not to get scared too much), and my interpretations might not be the only way to see things. Still, these are the explanations that I have which make sense to me.
The Puppet: The essence of what the puppet symbolizes is made clear at the very end of the movie. In the scene where Maurice tries to abuse Philip again, the camera zooms in on Maurice's hands as they come down onto Philip. His hands look exactly like the legs of the puppet. Intentionally or not, Philip had materialized his trauma into the form of a puppet with a face that looks like it is dying (perhaps symbolizing the pale face of young Philip as all color drained from his face in panic; it also adds to the fact that puppets cannot make sound, so even though the face's mouth is open, no scream is heard, just like how the cries of many victims of abuse go unheard OR it's Maurice's sickly figure). Whenever he tries to get rid of it, it returns because he has been scarred, and those scars don't go away easily. Also, Philip is shown to go look for the puppet as if he regrets getting rid of it - I thought of that as Philip being unable to fully let go/make peace because that would mean his whole childhood (as horrifying as it was) will be gone. The whole puppet is probably a symbol for Maurice, though, because, in the end (when Maurice's neck is snapped), Philip sits with the puppet's head on his lap, a way to show that he has finally won this disturbing battle.
The Possum poem/journal: the poem was specifically written for this movie, but it packs so much that I could've just done a post analyzing the poem. But let me pick out some parts. The poem revolves around a possum that is seen doing many things. I think in this poem, at least, the possum may be Maurice. One of them is the possum hiding in a bag, which is where it is referred to as 'black as sin'. I originally thought the possum was a metaphor for Philip, but I think that's what the fox is about. The possum comes closer (afoot -> wants to come and play -> will eat you up in bed -> out it sprang), and as it does, the poem becomes a more sinister being. At first, the narrator calls out to his mother and father, but they disappear (perhaps a metaphor for Philip's parents' death). I've established that the symbol for 'spider' in this movie is related to Maurice and his treacherous hands that abused Philip, and the line 'what's inside, man or spider?' seems to add to it. The last stanza talks about 'all the children in a sack', and the 'black, long-legged Possum Man' who will 'eat and smother' a 'child without a mother'. I think this is the main part that gives away that Maurice is the serial killer who kidnaps children and murders them. The possum that was playing dead and seemed like it was having fun with the children actually turned out to be a 'man' who is a monster. It also foreshadows how he abused Philip, who became an orphan, by 'smothering him'.
The dead fox that came alive: foxes also play dead, adding to the narrative of trauma re-awakening due to triggering events. The movie talks about how the fox was kicked around like a ball by children until it was presumed dead, but when Philip made contact with it, it opened its eyes and ran away. This mirrors how Philip would have 'played dead' to stop his uncle from going any further. It also seems to show his resilience of being able to withstand that much trauma and still come back to face his fears.
The gumball/candy: Maurice is seen giving Philip a gumball/candy when Philip is trying to burn his puppet. For some reason, Philip gags while he has it in his mouth. I wondered why that was his response, but the last scene described the reason. If I had put two and two correctly, it seems like Philip was made to have the candy in his mouth while he was being abused so that he would not cry out. The taste or feel of the gumball triggered a response from Philip because he was reminded of the abuse.
The yellow/black balloons: The balloons that were once yellow get covered in smoke, and they turn black. This is an indirect way of showing the death of Philips's parents, symbolizing how the fire left them charred and unrecognizable.
The bag that Philip carries his puppet in: The bag is closed during the day, but it opens by itself, letting the puppet out in Philip's dreams. It shows that the trauma is still spilling into his subconscious state (and sometimes even when he's awake, like when the bag opens at the gnarled tree). He tries to keep it contained in there, but it makes its way out from time to time.
The Room: the room that Philip was originally avoiding was the room where his parents died (judging from the charred walls) and where he was presumably abused (as Maurice seems eerily excited about the notion of Philip opening the door. In the last arc of the story, where Philip does enter the room, he is finally facing the two most traumatic parts of his childhood. When Maurice attacks Philip to abuse him once again, it becomes clear to the audience what nightmares have shaken Philip to the core.
Maurice’s wooden doll: the doll that he has resembles a puppet from Britain's 'Punch and Judy' puppet show. The premise of this slapstick show is that Mr. Punch always devises a plan for the other character to fall victim to. The character archetype for Mr. Punch is that he is mischievous and harms people physically. Maurice sometimes talks to Philip as Mr. Punch, who is the 'perpetrator', subtly signaling that Philip has been the victim of Maurice's physical abuse.
Philip asks to talk to his former teacher at his school. But instead, the school calls for the police and Philip has to rush out of the place. I think this may be a reflection of how his conversation went when he tried to report to his teacher that he was being abused by his uncle. They didn't listen to him and instead called his uncle and sent him back.
The way that the movie sets the scene when Philip talks to the boy (who goes missing) on the train is so that it shows the boy drawing things that are similar to what Philip has in his journal. Black scribble, frantic marks. After that shot, Philip starts talking. I believe that Philip was actually concerned about the boy being in a similar situation as he was (being abused) and wanted to ask if he was okay, but because of the way he comes across, it only instilled uneasiness.
One other metaphor/symbolism is that the places that Philip visits (especially his school, the gnarled tree, and the barracks) to dispose of the puppet (which we've established is his trauma of being abused) were probably where he ran away in order to hide from his uncle. But unfortunately, that place was also not safe for Philip, as implied through his uncle's dialogue, “I was always there”.
There you have it! These are some of the things that I thought were interesting motifs and symbols in the movie. As I said, take my explanations with a grain of salt, but this is how I would interpret things. I really, really enjoyed how the whole story was played out. So, if this hasn't creeped you out yet, go watch it!