When Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession finally opened in theaters around two-and-a-half years after debuting at the 34th Cannes Film Festival, critics, unfamiliar with horror movies to the point of lacking qualification to cover them, plead the fifth by pivoting to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote that Zulawski’s film made “no sense whatsoever”; Harry Haun, clutching his pearls for the Daily News, described it as an “extravagantly sick-making portrayal of a woman’s dizzying-descent into madness and murder.” Both of them, whether explicitly or implicitly, dismissed Possession as inferior to Repulsion.
Let’s be fair to these critics: In 1983, they saw Zulawski’s vision trimmed by 40 minutes and recut into what writer, filmmaker and scholar of Eastern European cult cinema Daniel Bird calls “a conventional horror film,” speaking with Paste earlier this month. It’s also valid to note that Repulsion and Possession share DNA. But molecular relationships aside, Possession is in a different classification from Repulsion, and frankly from most other horror movies. As if proving the point, Metrograph Pictures premiered a new 4K restoration of Zulawski’s masterwork earlier this month, theatrically as well as digitally; the film has enjoyed wider distribution since.
This version of the film, Bird says, is not a conventional horror film, by either the 1980s’ standards or those of today.
Because today, Possession has an audience and a reputation. There will be no brush-offs or dismissals among new reviewers, or if there are, they’ll be in a minority. This is, after all, the era of horror appreciation. Beginning in the mid-2010s, increasing attention has been paid to horror as mainstream audiences and critics alike slowly awakened to the realization that the genre has everything and more to say about us and about culture, a truth that horror aficionados have known since they were disobeying their parents’ wishes, staying up late at night to devour Tales From the Crypt. If there is a better moment for Possession to remerge shiny and new, it hasn’t happened yet.
There’s another, more urgent reason the movie’s reemergence is so vital. The era of horror appreciation has invited the rise of “elevated horror,” a horror niche the Canbys of the world would have loved for being art-forward and horror-light; what they are about is never in question and how they are about it is never ambiguous or messy. “All horror films now have a subtext, spelled out in bold letters, underlined, to make life easier for critics—to legitimize the genre,” says Bird. “The great thing about Possession is that there is a murkiness, which by Zulawski’s admission was unintentional, which has resulted in viewers projecting their own meanings—which is great.” No legwork is needed to understand what, say, Hereditary tries to tell audiences. Understanding Possession takes rigorous effort. A strong stomach helps.
Bird recounts a moment of anger when Zulawski read the copy on Possession’s VHS jacket when the movie came out on video; the author put it on a spectrum between arthouse and grindhouse. This sat poorly with Zulawski, who said, in Bird’s recollection, that “the real horror was a couple breaking up and not knowing why.” For those reading horror movies on surface levels only, this may feel like quite a take, even for the author; Possession is gooey, gory and grotesque, and on romantic matters it’s plain old icky. But Zulawski, of course, is right, and TF1 Studio’s Céline Charrenton, who helped supervise the film’s restoration, draws much the same conclusion.
“I think this film uses the pretext of the fantasy genre to talk about love and especially the end of love,” Charrenton told Paste, “which can drive you crazy to the point of mutilation and even death for the character of Sam Neill.”
Charrenton sees Neill’s co-star, Isabelle Adjani, as more ambiguous; it could be that her character is driven mad by a monster within or the monster she married. It’s a question worth asking, whatever the answer may be, because, as Charrenton explains, “a couple in the process of separation is torn apart violently and irreversibly.” The movie’s hardest to watch scenes occur between its protagonists, Anna (Adjani) and Mark (Neill), a husband and wife in the midst of upheaval against the backdrop of Cold War-era West Berlin, a place experiencing upheaval of its own. Mark’s a spy returned home having completed undisclosed espionage in an undisclosed country. Anna fell for another man in Mark’s absence and wants to try separation. Mark abhors the idea, though he abhors the man, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), more. Most of all, he abhors the discovery that Anna’s been two-timing both of them with a slimy tentacle monster in a derelict apartment just a hair away from the Berlin Wall.
Possession captures the dissolution of two relationships: West Germany’s from East Germany and Mark’s from Anna. Everything ends in tears. That’s horror, folks. But Possession plays more acutely, with more bite, in 2021, in part because horror’s stock is up and in part because the restoration adds new urgency to Zulawski’s work. TF1 originally restored this film in 2010; to restore it in 4K, they had to start over. Charrenton and her team worked off the original negative using “textless backgrounds” for the opening credits. For the most part the actual restoration work was easy, because the film itself wasn’t badly worn.
The greater challenge, she says, was finding the colorimetry. “We were not completely satisfied with the previous restoration regarding the color grading. So we had to find the exact color and especially keep the texture of films from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and also keep the color of Berlin dull and cold.” One reason Charrenton gives for audiences to revisit the film today is the chance to see Berlin as it was 40 years ago. “It’s always strange and emotional to see what has become of a city,” she notes. A better reason, and anyone who’s seen the restoration will agree, is to admire the effort put into bringing the movie into 2021 in the 4K format. Even if the differences between this restoration and previous restorations are arguably minor—Charrenton describes them as “quite anecdotal” and dealing mainly with Mark—there’s a certain pleasure in seeing shots in a film that were previously missing.
Likewise, Possession’s subject stands out in 2021. This is the film that arguably gave the “Psychotic Women” subgenre its name, being key to the book House of Psychotic Women, writer and producer Kier-La Janisse’s 2012 blend of memoir and film criticism. Janisse helped spotlight Possession throughout the 2010s while demonstrating how horror movies function as reflective surfaces for their viewers. It’s a film about one woman’s neurosis arriving to provide cathartic release for contemporary women’s neuroses, which, granted, are largely the same as neuroses felt ten years ago, 20 years ago, 30, 40, 50: Stress, anxiety, depression, outrage. Of course Possession would find new relevance today, and find an audience as a result.
Bird, whose Eyeball Magazine interview with Zulawski in 1997, co-conducted with Stephen Thrower, helped spearhead Possession’s earliest reevaluation, identifies a broader explanation for the film’s modern embrace. “You see this a lot on social media—memes and gifs taken from Possession used as shorthand for pure, emotional expression,” he says. “I think the internet, social media in particular, thrives on such heightened emotional states, so it makes sense that…Possession is finding an audience now.”
Consider the video for Mitski’s new song, “Working for the Knife,” which conspicuously riffs on Possession’s most famous sequence: Anna falls into a fit while walking through the Platz der Luftbrücke station, convulsing, screaming, writhing and secreting fluids of unknown origin. That’s evidence enough that the film has a foothold in popular consciousness. Four decades after Zulawski first unleashed his masterpiece on the world, it’s about time.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.