There has always been a conflict between cinema and censorship, particularly when it comes to horror films. Possession is an odd entry in that particular genre not only because it fell foul of the whole ‘video nasty’ nonsense in the early 1980’s but, more than that, it is a horror film that embraces art-house cinema. Possession, despite the seemingly simplistic horror moniker, is a unique experience. Art/shock is a small subgenre, but one that is fascinating – think Peter Greenaway’s Baby of Macon (1993) or Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Possession is a film that undoubtedly has horrific elements but is far more than its grotesque shock tactics would imply.
Possession has just received a stunning blu-ray release (with some excellent visualisation that shows the deliberate camera/lighting and film stock choices that were difficult to appreciate on previous transfers) and the extras on offer include detailed commentaries, ‘making of’ documentaries and interviews, which document how the film suffered problems in the US and UK markets on its original release, despite the critical acclaim the film received and the awards it gained, notably for the utterly gripping performances of its main leads, Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. No longer in fear of the DPP banning it, the uncensored Possession remains shocking – even after the ‘gorno’ boom of the early 2000’s – because it is, for all its deplorable non-humanoid grotesquery, deeply convincing.
At its heart Possession is an art film about the break up of a relationship albeit with a supernatural subtext. In many ways it recalls David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), which similarly follows the dissection of relationships and parenthood, coupled with horrific motifs that you really hope would not have a real-world equivalent save in the imagination of both films’ talented creators. And what imagination is portrayed, placing the deeply disturbing within a contemporaneous environment amidst an emotional family breakdown.
Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) should be enjoying a decent family relationship, although they have been apart for some time because of Mark’s mysterious job. They are both concerned about ensuring the welfare of their son Bob (Michael Hogben). But Anna and Mark are anything but happy, arguing aggressively soon after he arrives home. Mark suspects that Anna has been having an affair. And indeed she has been seeing the smooth (and slightly smarmy) Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). But Anna is actually embroiled in a far more extreme relationship than Mark or even Heinrich could conceive and she eventually leaves Mark and Bob. Mark seeks to find out the truth about his wife’s indiscretions – where and with whom, or indeed what – so hires a detective (Carl Duering) to follow Anna. But the results of his investigation become more distressing and unexpected than anyone could imagine.
Possession takes its time in revealing its disquieting narrative. It may appear to become Kramer vs Kramer vs Urotsukidōji, but the family breakdown drama unfolds slowly, with the couple obsessing about their situation and their unhappiness at Anna’s infidelity, as well as trying to protect their son from the bitterness and confusion both partners feel. This is helpful as it places Possession within the realm of a normal drama so that the scenes of shocking violence either between the characters or the revelations as to Anna’s real amour, coupled with Mark’s increasing need to understand matters and his violent reaction, have greater impact. The aggression – whether in a normal or supernatural environment – is direct and shocking, and this coalesces with the fear that young Ben is going to witness parental atrocities that will affect his emotional upbringing. But nothing really prepares you (save in the wonderful poster and the inevitability that all reviews have of pointing out the tenticular elements of the film that gained much of its notoriety) for the actuality of the demon horror that is at first only hinted at in Anna’s new apartment, followed by her incredible subway possession fit and the depiction of the creature itself in all its corpse sucking, gore dripping inhumanity. The creature is a remarkable achievement from effects man Carlo Rambaldi (whose multitude of great work can be seen in Deep Red , Dune , and ET), an undulating, inhuman fleshy beast writhing with pulsating tentacles, enlivened with viscera.
Possession is by no means a conventional film but it is essential viewing because of it. If possession is nine-tenths of the law you have a ninety per cent obligation to see it, if you have not had the experience before. Compelling, shocking and brilliant.