I've been trying to watch the 1981 psychological horror film Possession for years. I'd seen the infamous subway scene meltdown and screencaps on various horror/film blogs, but the film is notoriously elusive. I'm sure I could've found a way, but I didn't want some weird online link, and I thought paying $165 for the Mondo Vision special edition Blu-ray was a little exorbitant.
Directed by Andrzej Żuławski and starring an absolutely unhinged Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, the film was shot in 1980 in West Berlin and premiered at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Adjani and Neill play a husband and wife swept up in infidelity, violence—and, yes, possession. The movie is weird and beautiful and manic, and the performances are at a fever pitch of hysteria for almost the entire runtime.
When Metrograph Pictures announced this fall that it was premiering a new 4K restoration, I was over the moon—and the film didn't disappoint when I was finally able to see it.
I wanted to give a few behind-the-scenes tidbits from the film here in the hopes of enticing you to see this complex, strange breakup horror masterpiece.
It was shot on mostly wide-angle lenses
Possession has a unique look. It's up-close and personal with the characters, shot from strange angles, and the camera is almost constantly moving. We can thank camera operator Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz and Bruno Nuytten's cinematography for that.
Jaroszewicz said, "An additional difficulty, especially for Andrzej, was that the set-up of the wide-angle frames meant total organization. It's very simple to shoot with a 100mm or a 180mm lens, because with that you just shoot an eye, for instance, or a hand, anything. A coat pocket, a glass, or smoke. That is simple, and it's easy to build some sort of atmosphere from it. But, when shooting with wide-angle lenses, within the frame you need to gather all the elements that are important and to eliminate all those which are not important, because the wide-angle lens renders everything important."
Jaroszewicz emphasized that the camera should tell a story. This team had to carefully curate that story through camera motion, blocking, and set design.
The creature FX were done by master Carlo Rambaldi
The special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi won Oscars for his work on King Kong, the Xenomorph head from Alien, and the expressive alien in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. He also designed the tentacle creature in Possession.
Żuławski was determined to show this creature on screen. He pulled pictures from magazines and drew inspiration from the Golem of Prague, but he also loved Alien when he saw it. The production wanted H.R. Giger, but he was busy.
That's how Rambaldi got on board.
According to producer Marie-Laure Reyre, he delivered the various versions of the creature to Berlin in wooden coffins. Seems appropriate for a movie this dark.
The film was banned as a "video nasty"
One of the reasons the film has been so elusive for many is that after its Cannes premiere, it was released in the UK in 1982 but later banned during the wave of conservativism in the British film industry that blacklisted any movie deemed too violent or sexual for viewers. Many don't really understand why it was placed on that list of video nasties, but it certainly hindered its initial reach.
Similarly, the first U.S. release was a heavily edited version from Limelight International Films in 1983, which cut it down to 81 minutes from the original 124 minutes. The edit tried to mimic the body horror of Cronenberg but butchered the emotional backdrop of the film.
It became a film you could only see fully at arthouse screenings or film festivals—until now.
You can stream Possession on Metrograph until Oct. 15. It will be in theaters nationwide Oct. 15.