Premiering at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession remains a distinct phenomenon. Though in competition for the illustrious Palme d’Or, its art cinema context did not rescue it from being banned as part of the United Kingdom’s ‘video nasties’ campaign, alongside unashamedly lowbrow titles such as Faces of Death and Zombie Flesh Eaters. Skirting the boundary between art and exploitation, body horror and cerebral reverie, relationship drama and political statement, Possession is a truly astonishing film. Part visceral horror, part surreal experiment, part gothic romance dressed in the iconography of a spy thriller: there is no doubt that the polarity evinced by Possession’s initial release was in part a product of its resistance to clear categorisation.
With a production history almost as bizarre as the film itself, a cult following gained with its VHS release, and being re-appreciated in the decades since as a valuable work of auteur cinema, the story of how this film came to be is as fascinating as it is unfathomable. Alison Taylor’s Devil’s Advocate considers Possession’s history, stylistic achievement, and legacy as an enduring and unique work of horror cinema. Beginning with a marital breakdown and ending with an apocalypse, the film’s strangeness has not dissipated over time; its transgressive imagery, histrionic performances, and spiral staircase logic remain affective and confounding to critics and fans alike. Respecting the film’s wilfully enigmatic nature, this book helps to unpack its key threads, including the collision between the banal and the horrific, the socio-historical context of its divided Berlin setting, and the significance of its legacy, particularly with regard to the contemporary trend for extreme art horror on the festival circuit.