“Into the Dark” creates a new Christmas tradition with its disturbing, cuddly take on split personalities and the nature of good and evil in “Pooka!”
“They can be a little unpredictable…”
The duality of man and our struggle to be good or evil is a classic theme to explore in storytelling, especially in something like horror where normal people transforming into monsters has been a staple of the genre since its earliest days. However, this is a theme that’s especially relevant to Christmas. This is, after all, a holiday where some shady all-knowing figure makes a sprawling list that keeps tabs on who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. Christmas has so many flashier signifiers that it’s easy to forget about this component of the holiday, which is what makes it such an inspired focus for this story.
With Christmas as Into the Dark’s designated holiday this time around, it’s frankly better that “Pooka!” doesn’t go the killer Santa route, as not only is it the obvious (and laziest) choice, but it’s been done to death at this point, too. Another factor in “Pooka!’s” favor is that the incredible Nacho Vigalondo is the director on board for this episode. Vigalondo never disappoints, whether it’s with Timecrimes, his VHS: Viral segment, “Parallel Monsters,” or his most mainstream (but still extraordinarily weird) feature, Colossal. “Pooka!” feels like it pulls from Colossal most out of Vigalondo’s previous works (although there is a hint of Timecrimes in its final act), but this is still incredibly different, even if they both do deal with people’s attempts to come to terms with the fact that they’re a monster.
“Pooka!” tells the story of a struggling actor (Nyasha Hatendi) who thinks he finally catches his big break when he nails the gig of Pooka, the holiday’s next big toy sensation. A professionally trained actor, Wilson is initially skeptical of his new job, but the company behind Pooka stresses that they don’t just want a man in a suit, they want him to be Pooka and bring this idea to life. Wilson really takes to the role, but the more time he spends in the costume as this character, the more he feels himself begin to slip and lose track of who he is. He starts to feel that Pooka is gaining a personality of his own; one that takes control of him and he’s increasingly helpless against. The whole novelty of the Pooka toy is that it has an unpredictable “naughty or nice” feature and it’s this classic Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy that begins to plague Wilson.
Vigalondo works hard to make Wilson stand out and connect with the audience early on. He’s immediately a sympathetic character and the installment painstakingly depicts his dedication to his craft and that he’s actually a talented actor. This makes it all the more depressing to see Wilson put his soul into intricate monologues and then end up in a glorified mascot costume for the holiday season. Vigalondo also isn’t afraid to let surrealness invade the story and there are frequent moments that become quite absurd, but it’s always done in favor of alienating Wilson and not just to get a cheap laugh. This feeling of not understanding what’s going on is part of the experience and Jon Daly really sells that dynamic as the person on the corporate side of all things Pooka.
“Pooka!” excels with its character work and it helps establish Wilson as a loner. He’s often isolated and his careful, little life is clear right from the start of the story. “It can be dangerous to be alone,” he’s told by his neighbor, yet the company he eventually finds isn’t exactly of the conventional nature. However, there’s also a subtle sense of dread that’s present from the beginning of the story and begins to swell and grow as more of Wilson’s life is shown.
Outside of Wilson’s Pooka-based responsibilities, he finds himself becoming smitten over Melanie, a single mother and real estate agent. The two have great chemistry and Melanie becomes Wilson’s source of joy, but it doesn’t take long for Pooka to become jealous over Wilson’s new fascination. Throughout “Pooka!”, Wilson’s furry alter ego continues to try to tear down his support systems and leave him alone and defenseless. Melanie and her son are so innocent through all of this and it’s difficult to see them get caught in the crossfire of this.
Another real strength of “Pooka!” is that it doesn’t waste its time. The story starts to play weird and disturbing tricks on both Wilson and the audience early on to the point that it becomes unclear what’s real. Furthermore, Vigalondo and Hatendi make Wilson’s pain over his confusion feel real and scary. You don’t know when the next “attack” may strike and the spiral that he falls down is horrible. The second half of “Pooka!” may become a little predictable at times with the direction that it takes and its lucid reality doesn’t always work, but it never stops being entertaining and you never stop caring about Wilson.
“Pooka!” finds success in its provoking story and its strong performances, but this is also easily the most visually exciting installment of Into the Dark to date. Vigalondo explodes the screen with color, frenetic lighting, and uses perplexing camera angles to accentuate Wilson’s slipping mental state. Not only does Vigalondo succeed in making this costumed critter legitimately scary, but he also puts together some of the most striking visuals that I’ve seen all year. “Pooka!” doesn’t just center itself around Christmas, but the story finds frightening ways to make use out of elements of the holiday like Christmas lights or trees.
“Pooka!” expertly juxtaposes shots of Wilson against similar frames of the titular creature. The story finds a lot of effective, disturbing ways to play these two parallel to one another and reflect that their two sides of the same twisted coin. It becomes an unhealthy symbiotic relationship where it feels like Wilson can’t live unless he’s in the Pooka costume. The idea of playing a cutesy kid’s song over menacing footage will also always be horrifying. Vigalondo relishes in finding new ways to splay out the peculiar Pooka costume and fill up the frame with its unintentional creepiness.
There are also many moments where Wilson sports half of the Pooka costume and looks like some bizarre creature out of Greek mythology that’s half man and half monster, which quite literally depicts the larger themes that the story is interested in. There are also some really great musical selections in this entry and the score also knows when it’s the right time to become more experimental and eerie. It just helps adds to the already strong package that’s in place here.
The previous two entries of Into the Dark have felt padded to fill out their 80-minute runtimes, but “Pooka!” is an entry that basically justifies its feature-length duration. If the series first episode skewed towards Tales From the Crypt and the second was more reminiscent of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, then this one feels like an actual movie. The story is smartly structured and it finds a pacing that works. Vigalondo does not squander this opportunity and treats this like a film rather than some episode of an anthology series. That being said, this story would still have more of a punch if it were done as a short.
“Pooka!” is also smart enough to hint at Wilson’s past and if these “episodes” have been a recurring thing for him, but it’s never overly indulgent in the matter. The story is confident enough to let the viewers make their own conclusions while not spoonfeeding them exposition and answers. Mysteries actually make this story stronger.
“Pooka!” isn’t perfect and it sometimes gets a little too melodramatic for its own good, but it’s satisfying to see Vigalondo let loose here with such a dark story. The ending in particular really goes for the jugular with a vengeance. Not all of the beats land and sometimes Hatendi doesn’t exactly rise to the occasion with Wilson’s more hyperbolized and aggressive material. He’s definitely better at playing the more fragile side of the character. That being said, there’s still much more good than bad here and the evil Pooka design alone is enough reason to check this out. It may not be Vigalondo’s best work, but it’s definitely up there and a very strong addition to his filmography. More than anything, “Pooka!” will definitely be one of the most unique pieces of Christmas horror that you’ll see this year. It doesn’t take the same bait that other stories do and it’s a creative, ambitious endeavor that deserves to be seen.
Now let’s please get Vigalondo loose on a new Critters film.
“Into the Dark’s” “Pooka” premieres on Hulu on December 7th.