By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 19, 2018
Released Dec. 7, 2018
TV-MA – 1hr 23min
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Starring Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey
Struggling actor Wilson (Hatendi) takes a job as the corporate mascot for the year’s most wanted Christmas toy – Pooka. As the holiday season stretches on, he begins to lose himself in the role, until it becomes difficult to tell whether he is Pooka…or Pooka is him.
Pooka! is a clever and atmospheric reality-bender that details a man’s descent into madness as he loses control over his life while his worst tendencies are poured into the toy character he portrays. By design, it grows increasingly difficult to tell when things occurred or if they even happened, yet all the disjointed elements begin to converge neatly upon its conclusion.
Pooka! is not actually a standalone film, but the third monthly episode of Hulu & Blumhouse’s ongoing anthology series Into the Dark, which is a collection of unrelated feature-length films…? I understand that The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Masters of Horror – among similar anthology shows – also had unconnected episodes, but none of them could have existed independently in their finished forms as full movies like these installments could. Into the Dark is bound together though by the thinnest of premises, in that each film is released at the time of year to which its plot coincides, but that now means that each one will likely be compared to the proceeding chapters, no matter how irrelevant the connection. I prefer to judge this on its own merits, so from here on, I’m going to act as if the series concept doesn’t even exist.
“Yeah, sure – we can sell these to kids. Those little idiots buy whatever – it doesn’t matter. Lunch?”
With that out of the way, it’s time to talk Pooka! It can be quite difficult to manufacture an iconic character, and that endeavor might be the common thread between horror creators and toymakers. It takes the right blend of appearance, presence, presentation, and premise to make something that’s both instantly attention-grabbing and truly memorable. Would Freddy Kruger be so noteworthy without Robert Englund’s performance or his bladed glove? Jason Voorhees didn’t really hit his stride until stumbling upon his trademark hockey mask in his franchise’s third entry. So, does Pooka capture that kind of magic? For the most part, yes.
Like a toy at the center of a horror story should, Pooka possesses that prime middle ground between adorable and grotesque – cute and cuddly, but with big dead headlamp eyes. In miniature, it resembles the unintentionally creepy Furby, with its soul-piercing stare and illusion of sentience, but blown up to mascot-size, it acquires the looming menace of something like Freddy Fazbear from the Five Nights at Freddy’s games. You could guess at a glance that this uncanny monstrosity would be primed to steal the show, and while it does fill the antagonist role nicely, all the other elements of Pooka! round out the movie into an experience beyond a simple killer toy.
Director Nacho Vigalondo doesn’t have the deepest filmography – Colossal, Timecrimes, Open Windows, and his Oscar-nominated short film 7:35 in the Morning are the standouts in a 20-year career short on feature-length efforts – but he has developed a reputation for playing with the narrative constructs of time and place in a satisfyingly bewildering manner that he only builds upon with Pooka! Protagonist Wilson often finds himself disjointed out of sequence between what he’s doing and where he is versus the things he does while inhabiting the increasingly malevolent being of Pooka, to the extent that he begins to have actual confrontations with the destructive beast, until they are finally no longer one and the same. It’s an enthralling thing to watch, and Vigalondo elevates the material through his craft. Working on a limited budget, he conveys all this mind-bending and reality-warping through classical techniques of unnatural lighting, creative framing, and use of non-Euclidian geometry, and it makes for a stylishly standout film.
*rolls up newspaper* Now that’s a bad Pooka! Bad! *hits with newspaper, loses arm*
That would count for far less if not for the acting, and Nyasha Hatendi really nails it as a man coming unglued just as his life is coming together. Even in his calm moments, there’s a maelstrom of volatile and potentially destructive emotions that exist just beneath the veneer of Wilson, and Hatendi balances these elements just right to keep him sympathetic yet unnerving throughout. There’s just no telling what he might be capable of as he spills more of his dark side into the looming body of Pooka, and that generates the suspense that carries the film. The supporting roles are not to be overlooked either, as they convincingly form the rest of the narrative world that Wilson seems positioned to shatter – Latarsha Rose standing out as the woman unfortunate enough to catch Wilson’s eye just before his head-first plummet into madness.
If anything disappoints, Pooka! could have used more money to truly refine the movie further. At times, it looks like it was shot for the small screen when it had numerous big screen moments to share. Whether it could have made any money as a theatrical release, I couldn’t say with certainty – it would have definitely been a risk – but it might have been a risk worth taking. With more budget, a longer shooting schedule, and better filming equipment, Pooka would have only gotten better. As it stands, it feels more like a modern, feature-length, classic episode of Tales from the Darkside, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.