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News Article

The Unseen: 'Possession' (1981)

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possessionWe have all had relationships like this. Well maybe not the alien portion, but we have had relationships where communication just breaks down…where all attempts to remedy the situation are just lost in combativeness and fury. This is the real terror of Possession.

Andrzej Zulawski is one of the greatest underrated filmmakers out there.  Though his career is stacked full of awards, accolades, and landmark art films, it is also peppered with censorship and banning, low-rent distributions, schlocky labels, and unfinished work. And many of Zulawski’s proponents argue that Possession is not horror - it’s an art film with horror elements. Bah to that nonsense! I’m adamant that horror can be one of the most compelling, dramatic, and artistic genres, which is why Possession is this week’s inclusion in The Unseen. 

Possession focuses on the extraordinarily messy divorce between Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neil). Isabelle wants a separation, but has provided little rationale and few motives. She is even leaving behind the couple’s son. Mark struggles to understand what is going on or even communicate with his estranged wife who is teetering on the edge of sanity. It soon becomes evident there is a lot more going on with Isabelle than just relationship issues. 

It comes as no surprise that director Zulawski was himself going through a divorce when he created the movie. The battles and arguments are of such a refined note that they could have been created only through actual experience. The film is intense, especially the well-known and very controversial scene in a subway where Anna has a miscarriage from every orifice. Her body just writhes and leaks, which may also be one of the greatest actress deliveries in the history of cinema. This scene alone was enough to get the film banned in multiple European countries. The scene also caused Possession to be added to the UK’s dreaded  1980’s Video Nasty list of banned films. 

Creature effects (and yes, there is a very sexual creature involved) were the work of the legendary Carlo Rambaldi. In addition to the tentacled, humping creature of Possession, Rambaldi’s special effects work also graced the scene in many giallo hits of Bava, Fulci, and Argento.  He also lent his hand to many of cinema’s utmost aliens including Dune, E.T., Alien, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Honestly, I never had that much appreciation for Possession until a few years ago. I had seen Possession in my early teen years, but I was way too young to grasp the terror of the volatile separation, and there were barely enough alien effects to keep my narrow teenage attention. I saw this film way too young. Also, my initial viewing was on a grainy and well-worn VHS copy, which did not do the film or creature effects justice. Two years ago, Cinefamily in Los Angeles held a Zulawski festival and screened several of his few works (some of which were unfinished) in 35mm. My husband, who has always been a huge proponent of this film, insisted we attend on opening night. Possession is the most extreme shift in perception I’ve ever had with a film. This is a masterpiece about human communication and our need to make our lives mean something. The camera work may be some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially the ever-roving steadicam. Every moment of the film is simultaneously emotionally and visually riveting and exhausting. 

Possession has never received a worthy release. During its initial distribution in the 1980’s, repeated banning kept it out of many countries. It received a VHS release in the US which is how many of us first saw the film. Even the VHS copies now sell for around $30. Possession did a limited DVD run via Anchor Bay in 2003 on a double feature with the film Shock. Even with no special features and no visual remastering, this is the only stateside DVD release of the film, so expect it to run you around $50. I highly recommend investing in a region-less player to check this title out. I dream of the day Possession gets a snazzy Bluray release with special features oozing out the eyeballs. But don’t let the lack of technological advances stop you from exploring it. Even on the paltry VHS release, Possession is still a fearless paragon of horror filmmaking that all fans must see to understand and believe. 

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