Possession (1981) Review

PLOT: The marriage of Mark and Anna crumbles, leading to a series of intense arguments, gross-out body horror, brutal murders, and possibly an apocalyptic scenario.

REVIEW: Director Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror film Possession was never a movie that was destined to be embraced by mainstream audiences, but there has always been an audience out there for the film – it has just had difficulty reaching the viewers that would get the most out of watching it. In the United Kingdom, the film was banned as a video nasty. For the U.S. release, forty minutes were whittled out of its 124 minute running time. Home video releases have come along and then gone out of print, and the DVDs and Blu-rays are going for prices some collectors probably aren’t willing to pay for something they’re not familiar with. But now Possession is streaming on the Shudder service, which may be the film’s best chance yet to reach viewers who are going to be blown away by it.

Żuławski came up with the story for Possession, which he then fleshed out into a screenplay with Frederic Tuten, when he was going through a very dark and depressing time in his life. His marriage had ended in a devastating divorce, and soon after he was driven out of his home country of Poland because the Communist government didn’t approve of his filmmaking endeavors. He had lost his wife, he was a man without a country. He contemplated suicide – but instead, chose to purge all of the dark emotions he was feeling by making a new movie. That movie was Possession. A raw nerve of a film that clearly gets across the fact that the director was working through some issues.

Possession Andrzej Żuławski Isabelle Adjani Sam Neill

Much of the movie plays out like an intense divorce drama. Mark (Sam Neill) works as an international spy, a job that keeps him away from home for long periods of time. As he returns from being away for a while, he finds that his home life with his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and their young son Bob (Michael Hogben) has completely fallen apart. Anna wants a divorce, she has found someone else. So now the married couple has to figure out how to proceed. Who gets custody of Bob, what the visitation rights will be like, who will get their apartment. But every time they’re in the same room with each other, their interactions devolve into screaming matches complete with broken furniture, physical altercations, and even self harm with an electric carving knife.

At first, Mark is led to believe that Anna is leaving him for Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a man who’s into peace and love but is also able to bust out some nice fighting moves if Mark tries to get rough with him. But the fact is, Anna has been cheating on both Mark and Heinrich. There’s a third lover in the mix… and Mark’s quest to find out who that lover is takes the film down a path that leads deep into gross-out horror territory. The fact that the movie is on Shudder and features a credit that reads “Special Effects for the Creature by Carlo Rambaldi” makes it obvious that this isn’t just the divorce drama it first appears to be… and in the second half of the running time, the viewer is witness to some truly disgusting sights, bloody murders, and some very bizarre scenarios. There’s even gunfire and explosions. Chances are you won’t understand what the hell is going on, but it’s quite a ride.

Possession Andrzej Żuławski Isabelle Adjani

Possession is baffling, but it’s also incredibly well crafted. The cinematography by Bruno Nuytten is wonderful to look at, even when there’s something repugnant on the screen. The film also benefits from its locations. It was filmed in Berlin in the midst of the Cold War and is packed with shots of the Berlin Wall. Żuławski chose this city simply because it was the closest he could get to making the movie in the communist world that had thrown him out, but it adds greatly to the overall effectiveness.

The movie is truly carried on the shoulders of Neill and Adjani, both of whom turned in awe-inspiring performances that, understandably, emotionally drained them. As confounding at the movie gets, Neill and Adjani are both captivating to watch as they make their ways through some very extreme and weird scenes. At one point, Adjani was tasked with having to act out a literal miscarriage of Faith, and that turned out to be one of the most talked-about, memorable, standout scenes of the film. The actress has said that it took years for her to shake the role of Anna, which earned her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and the César Awards (the French version of the Academy Awards). Those awards were well-deserved, as Adjani impresses in both the loud, flashy scenes, but can also break your heart with just a look and a change of expression.

So it’s highly recommended that you give Possession a chance while it’s streaming on Shudder. Check out this horror movie that deserves to be seen by a lot more genre fans than have had the chance to watch it up to this point. I first saw the film ten years ago (I even wrote a blog article about it that was shared on Twitter by Sam Neill himself, so that was a proud moment) and it has stuck with me ever since.

Arrow in the Head reviews the 1981 film Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. Now streaming on Shudder.




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About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.