31 Days of Fright: Possession

If anything, Possession demonstrates why it might not be a great idea to own an  electric knife.

If nothing else, Possession demonstrates why it might not be a great idea to own an electric knife.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night, I watched Possession, a bonkers little film directed by Andrzej Zulawski (La femme publique, Fidelity). This film was another suggestion from donor and friend David Summers, who you may recall recommended the very strange and appealing Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural. Of Possession, Summers said it was “the most essential on the list” that he provided. Possession was obtained from my backup video store, Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Ladies and gentlemen, the other horror movies can go home, because I don’t think any of them are going to get weirder, more intense, and ickier! This is like Antichrist meets H.P. Lovecraft. The film opens in West Berlin (before the fall of the Wall, obvi), with Mark (Sam Neill) returning home from a mysterious business trip. (If your business is mysterious in 1981 Berlin, I have to assume it involves espionage.) Carrying the most bags any human could possibly carry, he’s met outside his apartment by his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani, killing it in every scene), who seems a little codl. Mark, realizing things are not well in their relationship, is confused about her ambivalence. But she reluctantly lets him up. They watch their young son, Bob (Michael Hogben), in the bath for a while, then retire to bed. Lying side by side, they muse that perhaps all couples go through this feeling of distance, and they each blame themselves for their relationship’s dissolution.

Their marriage, it would seem, was ending some time before Mark went away. They ask each other if they have been faithful, and both promise they were. Mark says that this sort of growing apart is just natural. Maybe growing apart as a couple is, but what follows in Possession 100% isn’t. Mark then goes to resign from his mysterious job. In a large, empty room, he provides his final report on the man in pink socks (?) to a tribunal of four men. They want to hire him for more work, but Mark says their business is through. He needs to spend time with his family. Mark leaves with a suitcase full of bills. He returns to his blue apartment, which overlooks Checkpoint Charlie.

That night, Mark is awakened by a phone call. Anna is downtown and won’t be coming home; she needs time to think about herself. Going through the bookshelves, Mark finds a postcard from someone named Heinrich, who writes, “I’ve seen half of God’s face here. The other half is you.” (Silver-tongued devil!) Mark calls Anna’s one friend, Margie, and asks if she knows about another man in her life. Margie claims ignorance, but Anna calls Mark immediately after he hangs up, telling him it’s over. Anna admits she’s been seeing someone for a while now, and Mark asks a hundred jealous questions: “Do you sleep with him? Do you like it? More than with me?” He insists they meet at the Cafe Einstein to discuss how to live their lives going forward.

Mark and Anna test out the latest speed-dating fad in Possession.

Mark and Anna test out the latest speed-dating fad in Possession.

In the cafe, they sit at adjacent tables, and Mark outlines what he’ll do – he’ll pay a certain amount to her every month, but he doesn’t want to see Bob, their child. This upsets Anna greatly. Mark begins to make a scene, dumping his glassware on the floor. Anna, however, tells Mark that no one is good or bad in this situation. But if he wants her to be the bad one (as it seems he does), she will tell him that she regrets having a child with him. This snaps something in Mark and he chases after his wife in a rage, knocking over tables. The servers have to physically restrain him. Mark later moves into a hotel and falls into a deep funk, living in squalor, not shaving, being unable to speak on the phone, convulsing like a prisoner of war attempting to readjust to civilian life. He lives like this for three weeks without realizing it.

Eventually he cleans himself up – well, he shaves, even if he’s still wearing filthy clothes – and goes back to their apartment. He finds Bob, completely unattended, living amidst a total mess. Bob, happy to see his dad, shows him a ship that “Uncle Heinrich” gave him. When Anna returns, Mark has been waiting, silently stewing in the rocking chair. She promises him about their latchkey kid, “It’s not always like this.” Mark announces he’s taking over. He says that Anna must restore order, and she must do so by calling Heinrich on the telephone and ending it. Anna says she would have to do it in person, and Mark says he no longer trusts her. She begins to weep, and a conciliatory Mark undresses her and tucks her into bed. It seems like things are getting a little better when Mark is awakened by a phone call. Anna has disappeared. The man on the other end of the phone says, “Anna is with me and will stay with me.”

Incensed, Mark calls Margie to obtain Heinrich’s number. He calls it, but an older woman answers and says that Heinrich isn’t home, and Anna hasn’t been around for weeks. Once Bob wakes up and finds his father crouched on the floor, looking up names in the Berlin White Pages, Mark feels embarrassed and gives up his pursuit. He drops Bob off at school the next day and makes a startling discovery: his son’s teacher, Helen, looks exactly like his wife in a wig. (Probably because she’s also portrayed by Isabelle Adjani.) “What is this, a joke?” Mark laughs. With his son safely in school, Mark hunts down Heinrich at his home. The leather-skinned Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), who doesn’t seem to know how shirt buttons work and speaks like Fritz Lang, answers the door. “I’ve come for Anna,” Mark announces. Heinrich, who is very touchy-feely (kind of like Dr. Oz) insists that he and Mark don’t have to be brutal with one another. Heinrich, unlike Mark, is very into spirituality and personal psychology and all that kind of thing. But more importantly, he says that he hasn’t been with Anna since Mark had returned from his trip.

Heinrich’s aged mother walks in and Mark is bewildered. “Is she here all the time? Even when you’re fucking Anna?!” Apparently, “yes” is the wrong answer, because Mark attacks Heinrich. Heinrich, however, is some sort of expert brawler and beats him bloody. Mark starts to choke Heinrich when the older, tanner man lets his guard down, but that just leads Heinrich to rough him up a little more. Mark returns home, bleeding freely, too find Anna preparing Bob some food. Mark demands to know where Anna went last night, and she refuses to tell him. Mark suggests that if Anna really cared about their son, she would try to hold their relationship together. Anna has a pretty good response to that: “Don’t you understand you disgust me?!” Their verbal argument reaches a fever pitch and Anna slaps Mark. “Do it again,” he whispers. Anna just grins, then runs away. Mark then proceeds to give his wife a merciless, interminably long beating that’s really difficult to watch. “You know what this is for?” he asks. “Lllliiiiieeeessss.” She runs downstairs and he pursues her, shouting names. Anna runs into the street, drooling blood, and they nearly cause a truck accident.

Don't be fooled. Possession is not a vampire movie. Unless by "vampire," you mean a relationship sucking the will to live from you.

Don’t be fooled. Possession is not a vampire movie. Unless by “vampire,” you mean a relationship sucking the will to live from you.

Margie Gluckmeister (Margit Carstensen) arrives at the apartment to take care of Bob in Anna’s absence, even though she professes to loathe Mark. (The feeling is mutual.) The next day, Mark visits Mr. Zimmerman (Shaun Lawton), a private detective, and asks him to follow his wife for a few days. Eventually, Anna returns to the apartment, and, almost upon arrival, begins to cut up some meat with an electric knife. (You know, as you do.) Mark asks how long this situation is going to last, with her coming back intermittently, them fighting and splitting up once again. Anna then busts out a meat grinder and starts grinding the meat she’s cut. Mark continues his interrogation, asking about a hundred questions, all of which Anna won’t answer. The only question she does answer is when he asks if she’s afraid he won’t like her. “Yes,” she nods. Then Anna takes the electric knife to her neck and starts to cut.

Mark grabs the knife away from her and rushes Anna to the bathroom, where he patches her up with gauze. He doesn’t want his wife to die. “You’re my whole family,” he says tenderly. Then Mark returns to the kitchen, where he calmly cuts himself in three places along his arm with the electric knife. Anna returns, looking like Mina Harker with her neck bandage, and announces she has to go. As she departs, a not-very-good detective (Carl Duering) very obviously tails her on her way home. On the subway, a homeless man takes a banana from Anna’s shopping bag and eats it – a visual admission that this movie is, in fact, bananas. By the end of this pursuit, the detective is literally running after Anna. Though it seems clear he’s been “made,” he at least found Anna’s address. He calls from a pay phone and provides the address to Mark.

The detective then decides to pay Anna a visit. He rings at the door first, and when no one answers, bangs insistently. She opens the door and the man enters, claiming to be from the building, investigating a claim about broken windows. Anna clearly does not want the detective in her apartment, and seems terrified by his arrival. The apartment is large, but barely furnished. He tours the place, appraising all the windows. But when Anna offers him a glass of wine, the detective is weirdly unsettled by her offer. He then goes to investigate the washroom and finds, in the darkness, a black, writhing something. Before he can identify what it is, Anna surprises him, then stabs him twice in the neck with a broken wine bottle.

Bob’s teacher, Helen, makes a house call, looking for Anna. Mark begins to explain they split up, but the doorbell rings again. Mark puts the teacher in charge of Bob and goes to greet Heinrich, who is possibly drunk, and looking for Anna. Heinrich reveals that he had a wife and kid once, who now live in Cincinnati (a fate worse than Heinrich). Mark keeps him talking his spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but refuses him entry into his apartment. “I used to be afraid of you,” Mark says to the shambolic man. “There is nothing to fear but God,” Heinrich responds. “Whatever that means to you.” To Mark, God is a disease. (Cheery.) Once Heinrich leaves, Helen helps put Bob to bed, then starts doing the dishes. She asks Mark if he has any help taking care of Bob. She’s concerned that he’s been having night terrors. Mark then launches into some men’s rights monologue, claiming he’s at war with women. “They have no foresight. I can’t trust them.” Helen responds by saying, “There is nothing in common among women except menstruation.”

Helen does some chores around the house, which largely involve removing blood from various surfaces and utensils.

Helen does some chores around the house, which largely involve removing blood from various surfaces and utensils.

Moved by Helen’s speech, Mark embraces her, and she decides to stay the night. They enter bed, naked, but are interrupted by Bob’s screams for “Mommy!” When Mark returns to the bedroom, Helen has dressed and is ready to leave. The next day, the true example of fragile masculinity Mark is, he can’t even look at Helen when he drops Bob off for school. Mr. Zimmerman finds Mark at his son’s school and asks if he’s heard from the detective on his case: he never returned home. Zimmerman reveals in confidence that the detective is his lover, and Mark provides him with the address he found for Anna.

When Zimmerman arrives at the apartment, the door is ajar. He lets himself inside, where Anna is busy washing the floor. He flashes a photo of his partner and asks if she’s ever seen the man. Their talk turns dark and existential – almost suicidal – and then Anna reveals the man is in the next room. Zimmerman enters to find a scene of pure horror. On the blood-drenched bed is a squirming, tentacled thing. Blood and foam has spilled all over the floor. “Mein Gott,” Zimmerman says (clearly quoting Nightcrawler from the X-Men). Anna explains: “He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.” She also notes that he’s “still unfinished.” Zimmerman then spots the body of his partner, and in a rage he shoots at her. But Anna retaliates, smashing his head mercilessly, then taking his own gun and shooting him thrice.

Mark finds a film strip on his doorstep, so he plays it. The film, shot by Heinrich, shows Anna teaching a dance class. Anna is a complete sadist, forcing one pre-teen dancer into uncomfortable positions until she moans and cries in pain. After shaming this average dancer, criticizing her lack of ambition, she turns to the camera to say, “That why I’m with you. Because you say ‘I’ for me.” (I’m just as confused as you are.) Also in the film strip, Anna confesses that she loves Heinrich, but what keeps her going is the pain that their affair will cause Mark. The next time Mark arrives home, Anna is again present (you’d think he’d change the locks), putting clothes in the refrigerator and doing other such helpful things. Mark tries to get her to just sit with him on the couch, and, like Lady Macbeth, she tries to wash off her hands without water. She begins to flip out, moreso than any character in a David Lynch film, and shouts, “I feel nothing for no one!” And then she reveals she had a miscarriage, which she blames for her erratic behaviour.

Then comes the most unsettling subway scene in film history, this side of Irreversible. In flashback, Anna departs the subway. In the subway corridor, she begins to laugh nervously, then scarily. She begins to scream and wail, then smashes her bag of groceries on the tunnel wall, spreading milk and other fluids on the wall. Next, Anna pants and contorts her body into what seem like modern dance positions. Eventually she falls to the subway floor, and white fluid and blood begin to pour from her mouth, ears, and vagina, pooling in a mess on the floor. (And the whole time, not a single other commuter passes by.) We return to Anna on the couch, who says that what she miscarried was “Sister Faith,” and what remained was “Sister Chance.” Not sure what to make of this, he tells Anna that she looks uglier and more vulgar than he remembered.

Anna, in the most harrowing rendition of the Batusi committed to film.

Anna, in the most harrowing rendition of the Batusi committed to film.

Anna leaves, and Mark, feeling sinister, calls Heinrich’s mom and tells her Anna’s address. Heinrich drives over to Anna’s flat right away, dressed all in white, toting a bouquet of flowers – Morrissey would be proud. He enters her apartment and immediately begins to feel Anna up and offer her some sex-enhancing drugs. Heinrich drags Anna to the bedroom, but then spots, in the other room, the terrifying blood-soaked fleshy creature, which now has something resembling eyes and a mouth. Heinrich panics at seeing the monster. He runs to the kitchen and sees, inside Anna’s fridge, the severed body parts of the two detectives. When he turns to question Anna, she begins talking about how people are just meat, then stabs him in the chest. Heinrich runs from the apartment and calls Mark on the pay phone. Mark tells Heinrich to wait in the bar at the corner – “bleed for a while” – and he’ll come to him. Anna, meanwhile, undresses and approaches the creature, now reclining on the bed.

Mark finally visits Anna’s new address – just walks right in, very sprightly. He’s got a real spring in his step now that Heinrich’s been stabbed. He even clutches at his genitals like a four-year-old. No one seems to be in the apartment, though. Anna and the creature are gone. And Mark’s good mood is ruined when he sees the horror in the refrigerator. He begins to hyperventilate and has to open a window to calm down. But once he regains his equilibrium, develops a devilish grin. Mark turns the stove on, filling the room with gas, then heads down to the bar to visit Heinrich. Heinrich, hiding by the pinball machine in the rear, will only talk in the men’s washroom. “She’s killing people,” he says. Then he tells Mark, now chewing on a toothpick like Ryan Gosling in Drive, about the thing in the bedroom. “Maybe it was divine!” he jokes, probably not talking about the John Waters actor. Heinrich pukes, just thinking about it, and Mark starts to scheme. He plugs a toilet with a shoe he finds in the garbage, then takes feather (also from the trash) and sticks it down his throat to make himself sick.

Vomiting in the toilet, he calls Heinrich for help. When Heinrich opens the stall, Mark smashes his face with the porcelain toilet tank lid, then pushes him face-down into the plugged toilet. Mark flushes and leaves the stall as blood overflows from the bowl. He then returns to Anna’s gas-filled apartment and rigs a sparking mechanism, which causes the apartment to explode as he departs. Mark speeds away home on a dead man’s motorcycle. When he returns to his apartment, he finds Margie, whose throat is cut and front is soaked with blood. He grabs Bob’s de facto caregiver and drags the dying woman to his bathroom. Mark finds Anna in the kitchen and reaches out to her, covered in blood, and begins to weep. Anna washes Mark up in the kitchen sink, then turns to him: “Do you believe in God? It’s in me.” She kneels before him and they make love on the kitchen floor.

Heinrich, on his way to P. Diddy's white party, stops to romance Anna.

Heinrich, on his way to P. Diddy’s White Party, stops by to romance Anna.

Afterward, Anna says that her apartment has become unsafe. (Her apartment has become a smoking crater, but I guess she doesn’t know that yet.) Mark gives Anna Margie’s keys and tells her to wait for him there. He then goes about routine chores, like stuffing Marge into a mattress bag and stuffing that all into the trunk of his car. Heinrich’s mother calls Mark, worried about where her son is. She reveals that she travelled to that address Mark gave her, and the apartment is but a smoking ruin. She then went to a nearby bar and found Heinrich’s body, “but not his soul.” Blowing off the old woman, Mark brings Bob to Helen, having killed his usual babysitter. By the time he arrives at Margie’s apartment, Anna is already dying of thirst (if you know what I mean). Mark can hear her orgasmic moans, and each cry of joy drives him mad. Mark continues into the apartment and finds her in bed, having sex with a tentacled blood creature. As they copulate, Anna turns to face Mark, and moans, “Almost … almost … almost …”

For reasons not entirely clear, Mark goes to Heinrich’s and speaks with his mother. He tells her that Heinrich is dead, and that he found Anna. He also confesses that he thought about killing her. (The old woman, not Anna … but he probably did that, too.) The two talk about the body / soul divide, and Mark helps her into bed. The next morning, Mark stands at the Berlin Wall, contemplating life (and death). He sees a dead dog under a bridge and thinks about the dog from his childhood that crawled under his porch to die. His employer arrives at the Wall and tells him the dog didn’t die of old age. In vaguely threatening terms, he tries to convince Mark to come back to work.

Mark goes to Zimmerman’s house, where police have arrived for an investigation. Mark commandeers a taxi cab and forces the driver, at gunpoint, to ram the parked police car. As Mark runs from the scene, he’s shot by a one-eyed detective, who Mark shoots and kills in retaliation. He drives away on the motorbike, but skids out in a parking lot, earning a serious case of road rash. Drenched in blood, Mark staggers to Margie’s apartment. He ascends the spiral staircase and, as he reaches the top, Anna enters at the ground floor. She runs up after him with someone in tow. “I wanted to show it to you,” she says. “It is finished now.” The creature now looks exactly like Mark – though a lot less battle-damaged. Mark, horrified, aims his pistol at the thing’s head. But at that exact moment, the police enter below and open fire on the three of them. Both Anna and Mark collapse in the hail of gunfire, but the Mark-like creature appears unharmed.

Romeo is bleeding ... pretty much through the entire movie. They both are, really.

Romeo is bleeding … pretty much through the entire movie. They both are, really.

Mark and Anna share a passionate, bloody kiss, then Anna takes Mark’s gun and – in the strangest possible way – shoots herself in the lower back. The creature turns to Mark and says, “So hard to live with it. Eh, brother?” Somehow Margie is still alive (?) at the top of the stairs. The creature hands her Mark’s gun and instructs her to shoot Mark. Mark rolls off the stairs and plummets to his death while the creature climbs over top Margie and escapes through the roof. Mark’s former employer – clearly wearing pink socks – finds his body. Like the dog, it appears Mark didn’t die of old age.

The film then cuts to Helen, Bob’s teacher, playing with Bob at her kitchen table. The doorbell rings and Bob warns her, “Don’t open! Don’t open!” Nevertheless, Helen goes to the front door, and the Mark-like thing waits on the other side of the glass. Bob runs upstairs and (seemingly) drowns himself in the bath (which was already filled). The apartment fills with the sounds of explosions and flashes of light. The camera noses in to the teacher’s face, mid-revelation, as something that may or may not be Mark paws at the door behind her.

Clearly the end sequence of Possession was an influence on the video to Drake's "Hotline Bling."

Clearly the end sequence of Possession was an influence on the video to Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

Takeaway points:

  • The director, Andrzej Zulawski, has noted that the film was inspired by a messy divorce. Much like David Cronenberg’s The Brood, a movie that, alongside Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, shares a lot of qualities with Possession. They meld the drama of a relationship breakdown with the tropes of horror. In Possession, even before the murder and goopy tentacle monsters make an appearance, Mark and Anna’s relationship is shown to be a total horror show. Clearly, Anna is suffering from some mental health concerns, but it doesn’t help that Mark deeply mistrusts her and is driven into rages by the mere idea that she might have had sex with someone else. The fights between the couple are horror enough. When you introduce the actual scary elements, the film becomes a sort of nightmare tone poem for the most dysfunctional romance imaginable. Makes you worry about Zulawski and his ex-wife.
  • In my notes, I have written, “I feel like I don’t understand sex enough to understand this movie.” And I stand by this statement. Clearly, sex is central in Possession. In fact, it’s as if Mark can think of his wife Anna as nothing but sexual. His only concern, it seems, is whether Anna is having a sexual relationship with someone else (and whether that relationship is better than their own). He is horrified enough when he meets Heinrich, in all his new-agey, significantly older man-glory. So when he sees the thing that is truly giving Anna this newfound sexual pleasure – a disgusting tentacle monster, the very definition of ugly-hot – so much greater is his distress. For Mark, possessing Anna’s sexuality is of utmost importance. She is allowed to have no secrets – there can be no unknowability in their relationship. This is why he questions his wife constantly. Mark’s need to possess is indicative of his general fear of women – for women’s sexuality is unknowable: their genitals are found inside the body, they can fake orgasm, the paternity of children can be questioned. Mark’s worry that Anna is “sleeping around” is his fear of the opposite sex. In other sex talk, Heinrich talks about sex as a method of getting closer to God, and there are more than a few references to the creature that Anna keeps secret as divine. Has Anna moved one step closer? Is she having sex with God (or a god)?
  • The difference between Helen and Anna couldn’t be starker. Whereas Anna – at least at the point we see her in the movie – is unpredictable, at times violent, and usually a bit neglectful of young Bob, Helen is a natural caregiver, immediately shouldering the emotional and physical labour of child-rearing. It’s almost comical how readily the young teacher takes to raising the child of a stranger. She visits to talk about Bob’s nightmares, but before Mark can turn around, Helen is putting Bob to bed and washing their dishes. Helen is an unusual figure because she really embraces the traditional idea of woman as caregiver – even to the point of being worried that Mark doesn’t have any help with Bob. (Would she express the same worry about a single mother?) Yet she’s also the one who tears a strip off Mark when he rails against all womankind in his misogynist rant. More than anything else, the dichotomy of Anna and Helen serves to illustrate what sort of man Mark is, and the traditional expectations he holds.
  • So, just what in the Sam Hill is happening in Possession? I have very little idea, and I can’t pretend I do. I feel like it may take me weeks to even begin to establish a theory. (Days alone spent interpreting that final scene!) At the very least, it seems to be about self-disgust on some level. Anna professes the idea that she is the maker of her own evil, of everything she wars against. There is something loathsome about her that she recognizes, and her only real fear is that Mark will recognize it, too, and dislike her. Mark expresses the same self-disgust in a less vocal manner. He is repulsed by the creature Anna has taken as a lover. But it is a creature that ultimately looks and acts just like him.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Possession is both creepy and unforgettable. After viewing it, I sat in my living room for a few minutes, trying to make sense of what I saw. Whatever it was, certain images and scenes are now burned into my visual memory. And it’s not just the tentacle creature or the interpretive miscarriage that carry the most weight. Anna and Mark’s fights are the most disturbing scenes of all. The film should carry a Surgeon General’s warning that it shouldn’t be viewed by anyone in the midst of a breakup. As disturbing as it is, I’d also consider it a very strange masterpiece.

Sam Neill, looking more than a little like Mark Hamill in the midst of a Corvette Summer.

Everybody in Berlin is wearing bloodstained trousers this summer.

Best outfit: The clothes that Mark first wears to drop off Bob at school is the best of his many tight-fitting outfits. With his shirt collar sticking out from a tight olive sweater, rounded out with white stovepipe pants, Mark is the single dad that has all the moms doing a double-take. (Good thing they never saw him in his three-week-old filth.)

Best line: “I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.” – Anna, neatly summarizing modern existence in one sentence

Best kill: This is just a personal preference, but I’m a big fan of stabbings with broken bottles. (In movies, that is. Not so much in real life.) So, as sad as it is to see the (unnamed?) detective get a wine bottle to the neck, it is a pretty good kill.

Unexpected cameo: Obviously, Sam Neill – a.k.a. Dr. Alan Grant – is always a welcome addition to a film. Even if he’s spending the majority of it being incredibly jealous and angry. And of course you know Isabelle Adjani from Nosferatu (where she actually played Mina Harker) and Ishtar.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: There are not a lot of what you’d call “concerned bystanders” in Berlin. Apparently no one uses the subway system, no one bats an eye at a man gushing blood while hanging out near the pinball machine in the rear of a bar. And you can stuff a clear plastic bag with a woman’s body inside into the trunk of your car in broad daylight.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Postcards from Heinrich (like Letters to Cleo, but better)

Next up: It Follows (2014).