By Scott Dorward
Possessor (Canada, 2020)
Way back in my first October Horror Movie Challenge, in 2013, I reviewed Brandon Cronenberg’s debut feature, Antiviral. While I liked the film immensely, the subject matter made it difficult to avoid comparison with his more famous father. I hoped his next film would establish his own cinematic identity. Eight years on, his second feature, Possessor, has arrived. Has that hope been realised?
Tasya Vos (Andrea Risborough) is an assassin, employed by a shadowy, high-tech company. Brain implants, installed in unsuspecting people by her employers, allow Vos to control them like puppets, overriding their minds with her own. This allows her to use people as disposable weapons, initiating their suicides as she is extracted and returned to her own body.
This is all taking a toll on Vos. Her relationship with her husband and son is breaking down. Her behaviour on missions is becoming erratic as she goes increasingly off-book. This is all pushed to a crisis point when she is tasked with assassinating John Parse (Sean Bean), the CEO of a powerful company. In order to get close to her target, she possesses the body of his daughter’s fiancé, Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Between Vos’s own fragile mental state and the unexpected resilience of Tate’s will, the mission falls apart. Vos finds herself stranded in Tate’s body, fighting to maintain her own identity.
Possessor is a much weirder film than even that synopsis might imply. While it has technothriller underpinnings, this is very much a psychological horror film. Vos’s growing identity crisis is portrayed deliriously, through hallucinations and visual metaphors. Even the process of transfer is depicted as Vos’s body melting like hot wax and being reformed as Tate’s. Every aspect of her being feels tenuous and imperilled.
The horrors here are not just psychological, however. Cronenberg does not hold back on gore. In fact, Possessor‘s initial release trimmed the more extreme scenes to secure an R certificate. Happily, the version on streaming platforms is uncut. Despite this, the violence in Possessor never feels gratuitous, even at its most extreme. This is a film about terrible people doing terrible things and to flinch away from consequences would do it a disservice.
Some of the scenes involving the implants themselves are particularly repellent. When Vos is forced to recalibrate her probes, this is a painfully physical process, involving wires and exposed brain tissue. Seeing her cycle through induced emotions as she runs through settings only adds an extra layer of horror.
Seeing Vos struggling with the alien flesh she possesses is also upsetting. While she may be an awful person — one who kills for money — witnessing her psychological and physiological struggles still creates a strong degree of sympathy. Watching her struggle to maintain her sense of self and personal connections provides a rich array of metaphors for mental illness, trauma and even gender dysphoria.
The 2021 challenge is out of the gate with a strong contender. While I’m not convinced that Possessor will be my pick of the month, it has at least set a high bar.
One aspect I particularly appreciated is that Cronenberg trusts his audience to understand the world he has created. Little time is wasted explaining the premise or the technology involved. At the same time, the concept is accessible enough that we never feel lost. This allows us to focus on the core of the story — the psychological disintegration of the protagonist. All this helps the film feel lean and urgent.
Possessor is not without its flaws, however. The premise only really works if you don’t overthink it. Given the amount of effort required to kidnap and program a host body, and to train the assassin for their mission, this is a terribly inefficient way of killing someone. Still, that is not the point of the film.
As far as comparisons to Cronenberg senior are concerned, while Possessor has its moments of clinical detachment and body horror, it feels more like a Christopher Nolan film. Just one from another, much darker dimension.
Overall, I highly recommend Possessor to anyone who enjoys that weird intersection between science fiction and horror. It is a richly imagined film filled with images that will haunt you like those memories of the person you used to be. You know the ones.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!