Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Into the Dark: Pooka!

This must be the worst must-have toy since the Chuckie Good Guy doll. It looks a little like the Philly Phanatic mascot crossed with Gizmo the Gremlin, but its supposed charm is its unpredictability. Kids are crazy for it, but it is driving the actor wearing its furry costume even crazier in Nacho Vigalondo’s Pooka!, the Christmas installment of Hulu’s Blumhouse-produced monthly holiday horror anthology, which premieres this Friday.

Wilson thought he was auditioning for a proper acting gig, but when he was offered the “role” of Pooka, the money was too good to turn down. He will be the only one wearing the suit, so he will own the role. However, it will be more like he will be owned by Pooka.

Of course, the whole point is to sell Pooka dolls, which jump off shelves like a combination of Cabbage Patch Kids and Teddy Ruxpins. Pooka’s gimmick is recording and playing back snippets of conversation it overhears, but there is no guarantee it will pick something polite. In fact, it has a reputation for being naughty more often than nice. Considering it is in such high demand, scoring one for the son of Melanie Burns, the single mom Wilson is trying to romance is quite a coup. Unfortunately, just as he makes progress on the relationship front, the character of Pooka starts sending him violent dreams and visions that threaten his hold on reality.

Arguably, Pooka is more of an extended Twilight Zone episode than a scare-your-pants-off horror movie, but that is not a bad thing. You can also consider it a loose riff on A Christmas Carol—really, really loose. Thanks to screenwriter Gerald Olson and a snappy cast, the characterization is unusually strong by genre standards. We feel for poor Wilson and rather like several of the people in his orbit, particularly Red, the retired actress living in the next-door apartment.

Admittedly, Pooka cannot compete with Vigalondo’s inspired Colossal, but it will not diminish his reputation as one of the best genre directors working in film today. He clearly has an affinity for Pooka’s inherently eccentric nature, but this could well be his most subtly executed film to-date.

Nyasha Hatendi should put himself on a lot of fans’ radar for his terrific work anchoring the film as the increasingly distressed Wilson. He covers a wide emotional gambit, while remaining faithful to the character’s tightly wound reserve. Hatendi also develops a credible rapport with Latarsha Rose’s Burns. Yet, Dale Dickey and Jon Daley really help distinguish ITD: Pooka! with the color and energy they bring, as Red and Wilson’s Pooka-selling boss, respectively.

Whether you call it horror, dark fantasy, or psychological thriller, Pooka! is up there with Anna and the Apocalypse as one of the best Christmas genre films this season. (FYI, there’s also something called Elves out there we just can’t force ourselves to watch.) It is very well made and rather haunting in its way. Very highly recommended, Into the Dark: Pooka! starts streaming this Friday (12/7) on Hulu.

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