Hulu’s Into the Dark anthology series has so far held more promise than it’s actually delivered. Each month brings a new film tied to a holiday, but while minor laughs and thrills are found in October’s The Body and November’s Flesh & Blood, respectively, both feel remarkably slight. They’re almost TV episodes stretched to feature-length, and air-filled gaps throughout are tangible in their emptiness. December’s entry comes with slightly higher expectations thanks in part to the presence of director Nacho Vigalondo. He’s an energetic and visually gifted filmmaker, and those are both traits the series has so far lacked. As good as Pooka looks at times, though, the damn thing still feels like it would have worked far better as a short.
Wilson (Nyasha Hatendi) is a struggling actor in Los Angeles who puts time in honing his craft but seems unable to catch a break. That changes when he lands a job mere minutes into an audition — it’s just not a job he understands. He’s cast as Pooka, the life-size version of the holiday season’s most in-demand toy. It’s a bear-like creature that randomly repeats things you say, sometimes in a nice voice and sometimes in a naughty one, and kids are going crazy for it. Wearing the costume quickly takes a toll on an already fragile Wilson, and soon his grasp on reality seems stuck in its own battle between naughty and nice.
The idea of dangerous split personalities has been part of horror since the genre’s inception with stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, and Stephen King’s The Dark Half all mastering the concept and translating well to film. Pooka can’t compete with those films, though, in part because it never gives Wilson a real world in which to ground himself. Something’s seriously off from the very first frames, and his disconnect becomes our own with the unfortunate effect of giving us no one to connect with on the screen. An attempt is made to imply that the suit is the threat, but Wilson’s psychotic break has already manifested and shown itself.
The film’s overly surreal nature also makes it too clear where things are heading. We might not know the specifics, but regular viewers of genre fare will see the third act coming many miles away. Again, it’s stretched out to a length beyond what the narrative can handle — it would have made for a killer episode of Monsters (1988-1990) — and threatens to leave viewers dancing between expectation and frustration. They’ll know what’s coming and wish it was there sooner. Hatendi is fine in the lead and confirms the talent he’s shown on Casual, but the script lets him down with a character who feels like no character at all.
What works, though, is Vigalondo’s visual style. Garish lighting paints most of the scenes, and it ties into Wilson’s fractured mind-set. Pooka’s eyes light up green or red depending on his mood, and the film follows suit with waves of bold colors across the screen and the repeated presence of flashing red & blue police lights. It paints a world continually askew, and while that’s bad news for the narrative it appeals to the senses all the same. It gives the film a festive but uncomfortable feel which is ultimately its greatest strength.
Pooka‘s themes of duality and unintentional monsters is one familiar to Vigalondo, but it’s something he tackles worlds better in 2016’s Colossal. The budget here is obviously smaller, but the issue is in a script that fails to start from solid ground and ultimately leaves us with nothing. Some people are mad, some people wear costumes, and sometimes mad people wear costumes.