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POSSESSION
DEVILS ADVOCATES SERIES *****

Written by Alison Taylor.
RRP: £19.99. 120pp

Out now from Auteur publishing

 

In the latest release from Auteur Publishing’s consistently excellent and insightful DEVIL’S ADVOCATES line of non-fiction books examining horror classics, Alison Taylor takes a deep dive into Andrzej Zulawski’s controversial and confounding 1981 cult classic POSSESSION. A bizarre psychological horror starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill as a couple in the midst of a particularly traumatic marital breakdown. In her opening Taylor posits that; “There really is no other film quite like POSSESSION”, and after reading her impassioned and thoroughly researched dissection of the film, I’d be inclined to agree.

 

Although Taylor carefully unpacks various interpretations of the film, and Zulawski’s actual intentions gleaned from quotes of his from various archive interviews, she does openly admit that it is “not a film that affords a safe, critical distance” and that it is “better experienced than explained”. As she further expounds, it’s “a genre film that has the iconography of lowbrow fare…a depiction of marital breakdown which is at once brutally honest and utterly absurd… a highbrow art film which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, only to be temporarily outlawed in the UK as a work of obscenity… [it] is more vital than any single category can hold, its status and meaning shifting over time”.

 

It is clear that Taylor has done her homework, and you can tell instantly that this piece is meticulously researched, drawing on a range of first-hand sources including the original script (in which a major character features who was removed during shooting) and the author’s own correspondence with Sam Neill. Thankfully, the insights from Neill reinforced my opinion that he’s a lovely bloke. We find out that he’d relax after a stressful day on set by running a bath and listening to Genesis, and we also hear how he was so extremely distressed after having to hit Adjani for real in a scene that he subsequently vowed to never be pressured into real physical violence on set again.

 

One of the most interesting sections is that which discusses the film’s fraught and occasionally bizarre production that involved drunken stuntmen and last-minute monster re-designs all under the spectre of the still ongoing Cold War (which made itself feel very much present during the location shoot in divided Berlin).

 

Taylor looks at Zulawski’s earlier films, and the inspirations that he took from fellow Polish filmmakers. His filmography, and Polish cinema in general, is something that I am shamefully ignorant of but Taylor does a great job of explaining this and helping to place POSSESSION in the context of Zulawski’s wider career and also within Polish cinema.

 

Since DEVIL’S ADVOCATES is a series specifically looking at horror, there is also discussion about how POSSESSION functions as a horror film. Taylor admits that it “is hardly a straight horror film, [but] it is, of course, not completely out of the realm of the genre either.” She argues that “The horror of POSSESSION is first and foremost domestic-the home, relationships, family, divorce”.

 

The section discussing the initial, widely contrasting, reactions to the film is fascinating. We hear about the heavily edited, and subsequently incomprehensible, American cut and the BBFC’s attempt to classifying the film (including some very enlightening excerpts from their reports).

 

Overall, Taylor does a commendable job exploring and illuminating a film that she openly admits to being difficult to pin down. Like most of the DEVIL’S ADVOCATES series, this does lean towards the more scholarly rather than being a light read for casual film fans. However, for those with a serious interest in horror cinema, and POSSESSION in particular, this is a worthy read.

 

Reviewed by John Upton.

 

 

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 © 2000 - 2018