Getting frantic on the U-Bahn with Andrzej Zulawski’s nerve-shattering psychological horror
The early 1980s would become notorious for horror movie censorship. The home video boom would provide new possibilities for low-budget filmmakers looking to make their mark on the movie industry, motivated by independent hits such as Friday the 13th, a Halloween derivative which did incredible numbers at the box office with its cynical blend of sex and slaughter. This led to a slew of sleazy productions that followed the same blueprint, each attempting to outdo the last for media-grabbing infamy. If the post-Watergate 70s touched a raw nerve with authentic lashings of horror served up by the like of Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), films of cultural relevance that replaced the supernatural horrors of yore with fact-based killers who were a little too close to home, the 80s gave us violence for the sake of it, the advancement of practical effects presenting realistic portrayals of murder that had troubled parents fearing for their children’s sanity.
The majority of those movies were dire to say the least, relying on cheap promotional tactics and shock value to garner attention in an increasingly competitive market. There were as many notable horrors released in the 80s than any other decade, movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser as innovative as they were cerebral, forging some of the genre’s most unique and enduring icons, but based on sheer output alone many felt there was a notable drop in standards, a creative regression that favoured type over innovation and plunged the genre into disrepute. The slasher’s cynical approach to teenage slaughter led the way, but a barrage of exploitative flicks would seep into the public consciousness like the ballooning blood vessel of an outrage-inspired brain aneurysm. Ruggero Deodato’s infamous mockumentary Cannibal Holocaust, the kind of grainy, visceral experience that audiences were deeply unprepared for, saw the notoriously vindictive filmmaker charged with obscenity after French publication Photo claimed that some of the deaths were in fact real. This fuelled the fires of a phantom sub-genre known as ‘snuff’, a mostly illusory phenomenon that claimed to feature genuine acts of murder, offering audiences the kind of voyeuristic outlet that made movies such as Michael Powell’s banished POV innovator Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s equally intrusive Rear Window seem tepid by comparison.
The kind of moral panic that many high-profile critics would become staunch proponents for would culminate in the UK’s Video Recordings Act of 1984, a list of 74 banned movies dubbed the ‘Video Nasties‘ by a tabloid media looking to exploit affairs and a Conservative government looking to scare people into abandoning their civil liberties in an era of global expansion, occupational obsolescence and civil unrest. As UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher championed ‘a return to Victorian values’, and with the nation’s freedoms under attack, the cynical horror revolution was brought to a crashing end, the likes of Jason Voorhees neutered into submission. In hindsight, it all seems just a little silly. Of the 74 movies deemed unfit for public consumption, precisely none of them are worthy of the various instances of legal action that saw movies confiscated, filmmakers prosecuted, and, as was the case with Deodato, even suspected of committing genuine acts of murder for the sake of a few dollars.
Most ‘nasties’ are so poorly made and bereft of financing that it’s impossible to digest them on any serious level. There are anomalies — artistic endeavours by the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci to name but a few — but none are more anomalous than Andzej Zulawski’s Palme d’Or winning psychological horror Possession, which isn’t so much a horror movie, more an unholy matrimony of genres looking to tap into the censorship furore while the iron was hot. Released in 1981, the movie was promptly banned in the US and re-released two years later with an incredible 43 minutes of cuts. If you’re yet to see it, you’re probably expecting the most cynical slaughterhouse ever committed to celluloid, but Possession is like nothing else you’ll find on the Video Nasties list. It’s a purely philosophical venture that just happened to make the shit list, one so bizarre and nerve-shattering it’s easy to see why a room full of prudish pencil pushers subjected it to commercial damnation.
I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.Anna
In essence, the movie is a love story; or, more accurately, a tale of tragic co-dependency that sees two partners repeatedly drawn to one another under a series of abstract and increasingly non-linear circumstances. Written by Zulawski in the midst of his own messy, real-life divorce, it chronicles the tempestuous dissolution of a relationship and the complete emotional breakdown of its subjects. The title Possession has a cute double meaning, but for one of those subjects it veers more toward the supernatural. In Anna, Isabelle Adjani creates a monster to match any character crafted in the strictly horror mode, Possession‘s psychological undertones touching a raw nerve that very few films achieve. It’s all so tenuous and alarming, plunging the viewer into a fractured, deeply oppressive environment teeming with emotional unease.
Adjani gives a theatrical tour de force that culminates in the film’s most startling and controversial scene, her character succumbing to a bout of turbulent thrashing that transcends traditional notions of all-out insanity, a nerve-shredding despair manifesting in the kind of bile-coloured excretion that wouldn’t look out of place in The Exorcist, an incident her character describes as the moment when she ‘miscarried faith’. So gruelling was the nature of her award-winning performance that Adjani claimed it took her several years to recover, an emotional hardship that is worth its weight in gold. In a 2016 interview with The Playlist, Adjani would say of her time working with Zuwalski, “Possession is only the type of film you can do when you are young. He is a director that makes you sink into his world of darkness and his demons. It is okay when you are young, because you are excited to go there. His movies are very special, but they totally focus on women, as if they are lilies. It was quite an amazing film to do, but I got bruised, inside out. It was exciting to do. It was no bones broken, but it was like, ‘How or why did I do that?’ I don’t think any other actress ever did two films with him.”
Decades later and the scene is still deeply unsettling, Adjani’s uncomfortably authentic display a deeply troubling experience that assaults audiences on a primal level, exploding like an exquisite ballet dripping with poisonous, devil induced theatrics. Possession is not the kind of film you can watch passively or repeatedly. It’s like a crash course in intense emotional anxiety, the kind that doesn’t let up for a single second. Blood and guts horror may have been hard to stomach at the turn of the 80s thanks to advances in practical effects wizardry, the very same that Possession utilises as affairs veer towards the supernatural, but there’s no substitute for the very real emotional horrors that can afflict any given person at any given time. Not only did Adjani touch a nerve with her bravura descent into madness, she scorched the sensibilities of a generation.
Not content with one startling portrayal, Adjani takes on a dual role as her son’s teacher, a doppelgänger who seems to represent better times. Anna’s husband, Mark (Sam Neill), caught in a whirlwind of paranoia and self-delusion, is momentarily stunned by the appearance of his wife’s identical, a reaction that immediately dissipates as the softer, caring version of his love intermittently replaces Anna in their home and offers protection for their previously abandoned child. It is through ‘Helen’ that Mark is able to overcome his sense of inescapable longing, until she ultimately dissipates under the weight of his obsession with the lost Anna, who by now has relocated to a grungy, abandoned apartment in West Berlin.
With her adulterous endeavours, Anna seems consumed by indecision — imprisoned by her domestic life and the responsibility of her son, Bob, and drawn to enigmatic philander Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a quasi-spiritual intellectual who justifies his marriage-killing tendencies with self-serving notions of existentialism, offering Anna false ideas of the freedom she desires. Initially, Heinrich becomes the antithesis of Anna’s suffocating domestic situation, his mantra of having “nothing to fear except God” fed by a decadent diet of psychedelic drugs and free love. In the end, Anna sees through his renouncement of ownership, Heinrich becoming just another victim in a series of grisly murders undertaken by the rotten half of Anna’s duality, acts of self-cleansing that seem tied to notions of salvation, a fact punctuated by various visual references to Christ’s Crucifixion.
Cold War Berlin acts as the perfect backdrop for such a paranoid and destructive emotional environment. Images of the Berlin wall are prevalent throughout, and there are eyes and ears everywhere, allowing audiences to further identify with Adjani’s wraithlike deterioration. Armed guards, oddly duplicitous neighbours and private investigators masquerading as police acting on a tip-off — a transparent nod to the Stasi secret police of East Germany — linger but a stone’s throw away. Mark himself is a former international spy, harangued by his employers after relinquishing his post, a reference to the tenuous politics of the era and a sense of distrust that borders on self-hatred. Mark’s spiralling and non-linear narrative reflects the actions and feelings of a nation divided by madness and rotten from distrust.
It’s here that the movie takes another unexpected shift, veering towards the disquieting realms of body horror. Like David Cronenberg’s The Brood, Anna’s sense of regret and emotional anguish manifests in a living, breathing entity, a polymorphous monster that becomes her live-in lover. The creature in question was created by Oscar-winning special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who only a year later would introduce E.T. to enraptured audiences across the US, helping forge the most financially successful movie of the decade, but don’t expect anything quite so cutesy. Possession‘s faceless, multi-tentacled organism seems to represent a sense of control for Anna, the chance for a fresh start as it evolves in a manner reminiscent of Hellraiser‘s ‘Frank the Monster’. When Adjani explicitly copulates with the creature it is shocking, repulsive, but also queerly sensual and utterly perplexing. It is here where characters, at least in their physical form, become interchangeable, speaking to the inescapable nature of love and the perpetuating human comedy.
We are all the same. Different words, different bodies, different versions. Like insects! Meat!Helen
Zulawski’s film is a relentless siege on the nervous system thanks to a series of startling images and the kind of frantic, claustrophobic framing that exposes every last shred of anguish, particularly in a series of frank interactions and feverish monologues delivered directly into the lens. Sam Neill, who would cite Possession as his favourite film he ever starred in, is equally compelling as the lovelorn obsessive intent on reclaiming all of Anna, but this is Adjani’s film. It’s no wonder the performance took such a toll on her. Scenes of self-harm and mutilation may have lost a little potency over the years, and were no doubt shot with infamy in mind, but the movie’s literal horror is merely a vessel, paling to the almost ceaseless emotional assault and disorientating lack of convention.
Possession has a nightmarish logicality. This is how it feels to be trapped in a lawless and inescapable dream, one of unyielding conflict that slips from one realm of despair to the next for a seemingly infinite stretch of time. But beneath the visceral, Zulawski is a compassionate director searching for truth and beauty beneath the many layers of humanity’s sentient beast. His movie is deeply philosophical, arriving at its discordant juncture through the pain and hardship of self-evaluation. It exposes our self-defeating complexities and the passions and urges that drive them. It highlights our capacity for madness beyond the safety of the human construct.
Anna and Mark’s relationship is doomed from the outset, but through notions of familiarity, loyalty and a peculiar sense of ownership, they are drawn together inescapably, both in their past and current forms, as well as the re-imagined forms they contrive to manufacture. Characters may be tenuous and interchangeable, narrative and location may jolt without warning or explanation, but all of this adds to the emotional uncertainty, and amid the madness there is one constant: their fated pairing, however tragic, is scorched with inevitability.
With its intense study of a crumbling human relationship, Possession explores notions of philosophy and religion, inescapable paranoia and impotent rage. It is political, metaphysical and wildly subjective. It is not horror in the conventional sense, but as with movie’s like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the real horror lies not in its visual embellishments, but in the all-too-real fragments of a degenerative mind, and the tenuous nature of freedom and stability.