A quick guide to determine if you’re ready for Andrzej Zulawski’s legendary psychological horror.
You may have heard that Possession, Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 surreal cinematic nightmare, is now available on Shudder, a monumental occasion for horror fans. It’s the weekend, and you might consider popping some popcorn and settling in for a classic scary movie. Before clicking “play,” however, here are some questions you may have about the motion picture journey you’re about to take.
So why is everyone making a big deal out of Possession being available on streaming?
Much like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, which only just made its debut on the Criterion Channel last year, Possession has never been available for streaming. Designated as a “video nasty” and banned in Europe upon its release, it was only available in the United States for many years in a heavily edited version. A fully restored edition was eventually released on DVD, but its relatively limited access had made it a film far more talked about than seen. Now thanks to Shudder, everyone will have a chance to experience Possession. You might need to sit quietly in a darkened room afterward, but you’ll have experienced it.
What is Possession about anyway?
At its most basic level, it’s about the end of a marriage. Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to West Germany after being on a mysterious mission, leaving his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), on her own to take care of Bob, their young son, in a grim dormitory of an apartment building. Anna has long decided that their marriage is over, and doesn’t even give Mark a polite “how do you do” upon his return before telling him there’s no chance of reconciliation.
Adding insult to injury, Mark learns that Anna has a lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), who, other than the fact that he lives with his doting mother, is superior to Mark in every way. So much so that during one of many violent arguments, Anna tells Mark that she wishes she’d had a child with Heinrich instead of him. Mark doesn’t handle things any better, so consumed with anger and jealousy that he initially refuses to see Bob, and prefers to marinate himself in a repugnant brew of alcohol and self-pity. They’re like two wounded animals, biting and slashing each other (or themselves, sometimes literally) the only way they can express their pain.
Oh, so it’s like Marriage Story then.
No. No no no no no no. No. For one thing, we see nothing of the before times when Mark and Anna were happy and in love. We don’t know if such a time even existed. We’re just dropped right in the middle of the brutal ending, without any information about how long they’ve been together, or what caused things to go so sour. It’s jarring, like turning a corner and immediately witnessing a car crash, and then the cars back up and crash into each other again, over and over.
Possession is also about Anna’s unraveling sanity after a horrifying experience in a subway station (we’ll get to that in a bit). She’s so overwhelmed with fear, sorrow and hatred (for herself, for Mark, for her circumstances) that all she can do sometimes is whimper, while other times she screams and claws at her hands like bugs are crawling under her skin. Mark is so wrapped up in his own misery that Anna’s increasingly unhinged behavior barely registers with him. Neither of them can put their personal torment aside long enough to be good parents to Bob – Anna abandons him for days at a time, while Mark lets their home fall into squalor, depending on Bob’s teacher (who just happens to be a lookalike for Anna, without all the baggage) to provide some much-needed structure.
Ugh, so it’s another “it’s really about trauma” horror movie. No thanks!
Now, hold on a minute. I haven’t gotten to the monster.
There’s a monster in it?
Yes. Obviously, I’m not going to get into spoiler territory, but related to that incident in the subway station, which is one of the most visceral moments of body horror you’ll ever see, the second half of Possession involves the reveal of a tentacled creature the likes of which the hentai tag on Tumblr never saw. A glistening, writhing affront to God Himself, it was designed by Carlo Rambaldi.
Carlo Rambaldi? Like, designer of lovable E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Carlo Rambaldi?
The very same.
The first half of Possession is a take on Kramer vs. Kramer if everyone had died and gone to Hell. The second half is a relentless spiral into surreal horror, as Anna, barely holding onto her humanity, goes to increasingly brutal lengths to hide a gruesome secret. Mark, meanwhile, hate poisoning his mind, brutalizes, stalks, and eventually helps Anna, though whether it’s out of some lingering affection or a desire to maintain control over her is unclear. None of this ends well.
Wow, sounds scary!
The word I would use is harrowing. Uncomfortable. Really, really disturbing. From the moment the discordant score kicks in, there’s not a single thing in Possession that feels good or right. Even during the rare times when Mark and Anna attempt to be civil to each other, they’re like two aliens forced to live in a pod together, and the air is slowly being sucked out of it. During their increasingly physical fights, you wish that Zulawski would turn the camera away, or end the scene. But it keeps going, and Mark and Anna keep screaming at each other, and that raw rage feels intimate and forbidden. Like The Brood, also inspired by a marriage ending badly, it feels like something you’re not supposed to be seeing.
Making things all the more unsettling is that no one else in Possession seems like a normal person either, except maybe poor little Bob, who, like many children of divorce, is lost at sea, an innocent among adults who’ve completely lost their shit. At first, Heinrich, Anna’s lover, is almost obsequiously nice to Mark, using reason and psychobabble to try to get him to understand that what he and Anna have is real and meaningful. He’d even like to be friends with Mark, and perhaps, it’s broadly hinted, more.
Also perhaps wanting more is Anna’s friend Margit (Margit Carstensen), who loathes Mark (as he does her), but when they’re in the same room together, their body language suggests they’re about to rip each other’s clothes off. Everybody, even minor characters, seems to ignore personal boundaries, standing just a little too close, and putting hands on shoulders in a way that feels too overly familiar.
The third act of Possession leaves the viewer holding their breath, wondering how much more things are going to go around the bend, and then it defies expectations by going even more around than that. Ending on a haunting, ambiguous note (Bob chanting “don’t open, don’t open, don’t open” will echo in your mind for days afterward), it inspired Hereditary, another movie that, while maybe not traditionally scary, digs into your flesh and stays there.
I don’t know, man. Give me one reason to watch this.
I’ll give you two. One is Sam Neill. If your knowledge of Sam Neill is mainly limited to the Jurassic Park movies and his absolutely charming Twitter account, you may not be ready to see him in Possession. Sometimes shaking and sweating like he’s going through opioid withdrawal, he’s the film’s protagonist and antagonist, bully and victim, puppet and puppetmaster simultaneously. Anna is so cold and cruel to him upon his arrival home that the audience is initially on his side. That is, until it’s clear that his desire to hold his marriage together isn’t out of any sense of love, but propriety (the film’s title has multiple meanings, you’ll soon discover). He’s not sad that Anna wants to leave him, he’s insulted, and that blow to his ego metastasizes into something grotesque and almost inhuman. He can’t even talk to her like a person, shouting, in one bizarre scene, “What are you DOOOOING?” when she shows up at the apartment to collect her belongings. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Zulawski directed Neill, presumably telling him, “You’ve just had all your skin peeled off, and someone keeps throwing salt at you” before every scene.
Speaking of inhuman, the heart and soul of Possession is Isabelle Adjani, one of France’s biggest stars for more than four decades, but who never quite landed in the U.S. Here, when a performance is described as “fearless,” it usually means the actor just gained a bunch of weight or let themselves look unattractive. Adjani, however, goes to lengths that are both mesmerizing and extremely hard to watch. The aforementioned subway scene, which, again, I don’t want to give too much away, is a one-woman masterclass in going through it, as Adjani shrieks, howls, moans and cackles with maniacal glee, while moving her body like it’s being thrown about by invisible hands. It’s all the more astonishing when you learn that it took just two takes to nail the scene, after which I can only assume she spent a week in bed.
It’s her quieter moments, however, that are more unsettling. She often stares directly into the camera in tight close-up, eyes shining with something that might be mania, but also child-like joy. If it’s possible to be both euphoric and terrified, she is. In perhaps the film’s most frightening moment, Mark strikes her and causes her nose to bleed. She swipes at the blood with her hand and smiles, as if thinking You can’t hurt me. I’m already gone. And she is. She’s gone. She’s outta there.
Sounds really f*cked up. I’m in.
Yes, it is totally f*cked up.
Possession is now available on Shudder.