Possession (1981)

Possession (1981)

Director: Andrzej Zulawski

Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill

Runtime: 120 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, arguably one of the best horror movies ever made, is a cult classic that has divided audiences. There are a lot of people who think it’s a masterpiece, in a league of its own and completely unparalleled. Others think it’s a heap of trash. It really is easy to go either way, though Possessionis one of those few films that has flaws that are not only easy to overlook, but fun and wonderful to acknowledge. The minor flaws in this film – and I consider them quite minor – only add to its effect, one of dazing strangeness and unforgettable mania.

Possession is the story of Anna and Mark (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill), a married couple whose relationship is gradually falling apart to due the various mental issues of both of them. Mark is deeply attached and almost obsessed with his wife, and begs and pleads for her love after she admits she no longer cares for him. She tells him she has a new lover, and it is at this point that the film which so far seems to be little more than just a basic domestic drama, turns into something different entirely. Both Mark and Anna gradually become more and more unhinged, and their meetings turn into screaming matches. Mark flips tables and throws chairs in one scene, his agitation overcoming him.

But Mark’s loss of control is nothing compared to Anna’s absolute insanity and pure mental hysteria. In a performance reminiscent of Shelley Duvall in The Shining and Harriet Andersson in Through a Glass, Darkly, she completely changes her emotional presence and form, becoming a mad, raving lunatic overcome by screaming fits and babbling feverish disorder. One scene in particular will stay with me forever. Anna, pregnant with an ambiguous creation that may or may not be human, breaks down in a subway station, vomiting a mixture of oozy white liquid and blood, screaming and flailing her entire body around menacingly, giving birth to her nightmarish alien monstrosity. It is a sequence unlike anything I have ever seen in its sheer length and loss of control. I don’t know how Adjani acted this scene as well as she did; it’s wild.

Possession is a great film but one that suffers from the curse of unavailability. Cursed as a “video nasty” at the time of its release, it has become a lost cult classic, often judged harshly for its content and rarely acclaimed as the masterpiece it is. The film is messy and monstrous. It invades the viewer’s mind and bangs cymbals together inside their brain. It is very difficult to watch, at times completely senseless and often seriously off-putting. But it is a work of genius, and because it’s so difficult to find, its mysteries are even more enigmatic. The full-length director’s cut, which I saw just today, is obviously the defining and most important version of the film, and the one wherein its true madness can be appreciated for its sheer scale and scope.

It is one of those “things” that are becoming increasingly more difficult to come across: a really, genuinely scary horror film that hasn’t been exploited or parodied a million times over in pop culture. To many it is still a mystery, unlike more popular horror films, the details of which many people know well enough without even having seen the movie. The best way to look at Possession is by treating it as a mystery. Go in knowing as little as possible. Watch the completely stunning degradation and horror that unfolds on screen, and judge this movie for yourself. I consider it a horror masterpiece; few films are like this. Though often cited as having bad acting, particularly from Neill, I think this is intentional and really only adds to the already layered weirdness and off-kilter tone of the movie all throughout. I think the actors really give everything for this movie, and it pays off in spades. Possession is cruelly underseen and surprisingly undervalued. It deserves mention among Psycho, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one of the best horror movies of all time.

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Posted on July 28, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. This sounds wild indeed. I’ll be adding this to my list. Hopefully, I’ll manage to come across it somehow. Great review Tyler.

  2. I don’t remember the film itself, but I do recall seeing those images on a TV once when I was little. Sounds like a cheesy horror film though. (horror is just about one of my least favorite genres). I’ll check it out though due to your review and to step out of my comfort zone. I might actually like it; that last picture gives me chills.

    • The movie has moments that could be described as “cheesy,” but in some scenes the screaming and hysteria goes so over-the-top that it transcends the horror genre. I was stunned. That last picture is from my favourite scene of the movie, which you can watch here. It may just seem like an over-the-top explosion of insanity, but think about how difficult and draining it must’ve been for Isabelle Adjani to act. I admire her.

  3. Apparently, she won a Cannes Award and a Cesar for her role! It’s rare for a horror film to be awarded thus. Definitely watching it now.

    • See, and that’s a brilliant statement about what makes this different from other horror films. Her performance is really unlike any other from a film of its type.

  4. I don’t know if horror is the right word for this one. It’s very intense psyuchological drama/thriler, but apart from certain elements it’s not really scary, it’s more devastating. I think Adjani’s work here is one of the finest performances, her breakdown in the underground pass was insane.

  5. never thought of it as horror, but I guess you can define it as that since Tale of a Two Sister is called horror and that wasn’t exactly horror either. I guess it depends on how you interpret it. Apart from that it is a really hard film, Sam Neil was pretty bad and unbelievable while Adjani had one of the best acting I’ve seen on a big screen. I don’t know how she pulled off a lot of scenes (especially the one you mentioned subway station). I think the storyline was often rubbish. but the emotions that are displayed have such a raw power and matched with the brutal and discusting actions of our heroes it gives you one of the best description of a heart-wrenching breakup ever.

    • Sam Neill was bad but I felt like I could overlook his flaws because he does have his moments.

      Whatever flaws there may be in the storyline are made up for by the film’s style. Even in its disintegrating third act it still retains its dark, strange style which is what keeps it entertaining.

  6. Good review that intrigues me without giving away to much. I like that poster. I was considering watching this but I think I will wait until it comes to the big screen in October at a local theater. Horror may be my favorite genre to see at the theater as it leaves such a unshakable effect on me after.

  7. Great post, it’s not the easiest film to watch but it is a very good one. That scene in the subway has stayed with me ever since I watched the film.

  8. I recently read a review of Antichrist that compared it with Possession. What do you think, do you think the two films share similar traits?

    • I guess they do, but I feel they’re much different films. Possession is more of a very dark and powerful thriller/horror, whereas Antichrist has more layers and complexity. I love them both, and it’s hard to speculate about their similarities and differences, but I guess in general it’s easy to compare the two.

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