The psychological horror film from 1981 Possession was Polish director Andrzej Żuławski‘s first and only English language film. Although it is only a single film, it has had a historical impact on the cinema, equivalent to a whole series of works. With a deeply disturbing look at marriage, the unraveling of the mind, and a possession that takes hold of its main character, it has long been considered a film far ahead of its time in almost every way. Key among the reasons why it has endured is Isabelle Adjani, if scary performance when Anna would win her the award for Best Actress at the 34th Cannes Film Festival. Possession itself was also nominated for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, one of the highest accolades a film can receive. Despite all this, it was a story that faced oppression and was unable to be seen for more than a decade because it was branded as a “video ugly” and faced severe restrictions and bans .
The film follows Anna and her husband Mark, played by an equally terrific Sam Neil, whose relationship is about to crumble after he returns home from doing covert spy work. She subsequently informs him that she wants a divorce, which sets in motion a series of events that become as strange as they make scary. Both Mark and Anna become more and more independent in scene after scene, slipping into being a dark descent into madness. The place it arrives at is utterly scary as their world begins to fall apart around them. Among them is the couple’s young son, Bob, who is often left alone with no one to take care of him. There is also Anna’s lover, Heinrich, a mysterious teacher who bears a striking resemblance to her, and an abundance of scenes with the couple in each other’s throats, sometimes literally. It’s appropriately messy and insane, and it shows a screen that does not look like anything one has seen at the time. It is all-consuming and deeply influential.
The full portrait of this family with everything that hits them is so outrageous and nightmarish that it was forbidden to get a proper distribution. A recent restoration has brought the film back in all its glory, though it has been decades in the making to ensure people can experience it as the director intended when he first set out to make it. As it was such a clear vision that would later win the great recognition, it became a target for a backlash against the cinema, which was branded as potentially harmful to society. Getting your film branded as a so-called “video nasty”, a label given by a conservative moral panic against films in the 1980s, meant that your work could be subject to censorship and even a complete ban on their content. The reasons for a ban were often quite elusive, even though it was usually in relation to a film’s extreme violence or sexual content. In the event that it ran wrong by these guidelines, it may be subject to restrictions.
That’s exactly what happened Possession. According to a 2010 review in Sight and Sound, the film was included on the video’s ugly list by the Director of Public Prosecutors (DPP). The DPP had some influence as the third highest public prosecutor in England after the Attorney General and the Solicitor General. In the 80s, the DPP published a list of 72 films that were video nasties, which also included films such as The evil death, I’m spitting on your grave and Cannibal Holocaust. This list was not just an empty threat as it also meant that the film could be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. This would end up leading many films to be severely restricted from being seen in full by the audience.
The inclusion on the blacklist would have lasting consequences and put a big damper on the film’s success. According to Far Out Magazine, the film’s original clip was “banned in the UK and US” due to being branded as one of the many video nasties. It was released in the United States, however, only after cutting more than a third of its driving time. The result was a film that is vastly different from what one can see now. The film, released at the time, was a cut that was reduced to dealing exclusively with the elements of body-horror, removing all the central themes of the emotional and psychological pain of the couple’s rapidly dissolving marriage.
The 81-minute cut, a version that is basically a completely different film, was met with mixed to occasional positive reviews and praise for what the audience was able to see of it back. However, there was a lot that felt incomplete and random because of how much had been removed. It’s still a curious thought about what the film’s release could have been if it had not been the subject of censorship and such drastic cuts. At the very least, audiences and critics themselves might have been able to judge whether the director’s unfiltered vision was something they enjoyed as a complete film. Instead, the release was one that was hacked and cut until it was unrecognizable from what Żuławski originally intended the audience to see.
When it came to the Box Office, returns turned out to be a big downturn. According to Box Office Mojo, the film would earn $ 1.1 million after being released on October 28, 1983. When it came to the UK, distribution of the film was still banned, so there was no return to see there. For a film that had a budget of $ 2.4 million, this was an extremely disappointing and disappointing result.
However, Possession was not out to count when it came to having a lasting cultural impact. The film found new life on VHS and developed a cult following that surpassed the box office’s flaws and ensured that it remains a memorable icon from that era in cinema. The more underground attention came in part from the fact that the film had been branded as a video ugly. It attracted the type of audience that sought to see something precisely because they were not allowed to by the forces. When it was first released on DVD, for the first time ever in 2010, it spread.
That influence comes from how memorable many of the scenes are. As BBC film critic Mark Kermode remarked at the time of the first release, audiences can now watch “the film’s most infamous sequence”, in which Adjani walks down a tunnel in “the most bizarrely fascinating sequences in modern cinema.” Now, more than a decade later, the film’s restoration brings that scene and more to sharp details for all to see. For a movie that was almost wiped off the face of the earth to never be seen again, Possession has become one of the most coveted works ever.
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