Shudder Secrets: Possession Explained
If you want something strong heading into the new year, let me suggest Possession. For decades, the full cut was impossible to track down in the US and the UK. It landed on the video nasties list in the 1980s, while versions that floated around the US cut about 1/3 of the film. Blu-ray and DVD versions exist on Amazon. However, they’re either imports or extremely limited in stock. Now, the full cut comes to Shudder to kick off the new year, a major feat considering it was not available on any major streaming services.
Director Andrzej Zulawski‘s film is an intense cinematic experience. To watch it is to witness a volcanic unraveling of a marriage. There’s self-harm, domestic abuse, claustrophobic spaces, and even a scene involving sex with a tentacled hellspawn. A brutal viewing, Possession is somehow compelling, especially the performances and its exploration of faith and a failed marriage inspired by the director’s own divorce.
Possession and Bitter Divisions
The film begins just as Mark, played by a young Sam Neill, returns home after some covert spy work. On the street, his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) tells him she wants a divorce. He pleads with her for more time to sort things out but soon finds a postcard from her sleazy lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent).
Both the shooting locations and cinematography illustrate the divisions. The opening includes shots of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Germany. The separation between husband and wife feels palpable. They often speak to each other in separate rooms of their cramped apartment overlooking the wall, especially within the first act. The domestic spaces feel tight and suffocating. In a cafe, they sit close to each other but at different tables. This strife is reinforced through the film’s constant gray tones and reoccurring shots of the Berlin Wall, and graffiti that reads “Tear down the wall.”
The film doesn’t become any easier to watch. At one point, Mark smacks Anna in the face several times, causing her to flee the apartment and run into the street with a bloody mouth. In another unnerving sequence, she cuts her throat with an electric knife, and he does the same to his arm. While the two initially keep space from each other, as their relationship deteriorates more, the camera often zooms in on their faces, as they’re literally at each other’s throats. This creates an intense feeling of claustrophobia and tumult.
Further, the more Mark badgers her, the more Anna wants to leave him and feels imprisoned. This is worsened when he hires a detective to follow her. He’s shown trailing her to a train station, giving her no space of her own. You can feel her panic attacks coming on and her literal struggle to breathe and break away from these men. She can’t flee their gaze.
Possession and Doppelgangers
As awful as Mark and Anna are for each other, each finds another lover similar to the one they want to escape. For Anna, this is the tentacled beast that she hides in a grimy apartment. The more she kills and the more the creature evolves, the more it resembles Sam. It’s both her spiritual fulfillment and a replacement for her hubby. Trust me, you’ll never see a sex sequence quite like the one where Anna makes love to the monster while Sam witnesses it in horror.
Meanwhile, Sam sparks a connection with a woman who looks just like Anna, his son’s teacher. All of this begs the question if we’re always going to be attracted to the same type of person, even if they’re no good for us. Anna pleads for Sam to leave her be, but the monster eventually becomes an exact replica of her husband, at least in appearance. This occurs as Sam hooks up with someone who looks just like his wife. This motif is reinforced with several shots that include mirrors or character actions and movements that reoccur later in different scenes. It adds to the film’s sense of dread.
Possession’s Exploration of Faith and Evil
Two sequences are infamous in Possession. I already mentioned the tentacle sex scene. The other occurs in a subway. This alone may have earned Adjani her Best Actress award when the film played at Cannes in 1981. It begins with a maniacal laugh before Anna starts flailing hysterically and thrashing against the wall, smashing her grocery bag in the process before rolling around in milk and spewing blood and white liquid. This scene is everything, the moment when Anna loses her faith.
Yep, it’s a difficult watch, but I promise you won’t look away. It’s mesmerizing and unlike anything, I’ve seen in film. This is the scene when Anna becomes fully possessed, after giving monologues about Sister Faith and Sister Chance warring within. Well, this is the part where Sister Chance essentially strangles Sister Faith, and evil wins out. Anna miscarries her faith, which bleeds out or perhaps is forced out of her body by a sinister presence.
It’s important to note this follows a scene where Anna leaves a church after clutching that bag of food beneath a statue of Christ. Maybe the bag of food represents Anna’s faith that she clings to, before she violently smashes it against the wall. As she exits the church, light shines upon her and upon the street. The scene cuts to her entering the subway, which may be a metaphorical version of hell. While the subway is dark and drab, that’s contrasted with artificial lights, symbolic of the war within Anna, the light and the dark.
Still, even after her possession, Anna tells Mark that faith needs to be protected and cared for, like a baby. This is contrasted with Mark’s cynical view of religion. At one point, he calls God a “disease.” The two see eye to eye on nothing.
Does Possession Warrant Its Cult Following?
After too many years of being unavailable, the full version of Possession is now available to a wider audience, thanks to Shudder. Even after reading about the film, it still floored me, especially Neill and Adjani’s delirious performances. This movie feels like a nervous breakdown, as husband and wife descend into their own personal hells. It is bleak and emotionally devastating but still a must-watch, a harrowing two hours that will leave you shaken.
Possession lands on Shudder on January 5. Keep updated on the streaming service’s latest content in 2023 by following my Shudder Secrets column.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.