Shabby in a lot of ways, Pooka! is still leaps and bounds better than the phrase "made-for-streaming Christmas horror film" makes it sound.
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Written by Gerald T. Olson
Pooka! piqued my curiosity in the first place much the same way it probably piqued yours: by being so incessantly pimped on Hulu that you saw a commercial for it every fifteen minutes for three hours straight every day during the November of 2018, at which point the streaming platform released it as part of their Into the Dark franchise, then (as streaming services are wont to do) forgot about it immediately, in favor of the next episode. Now, Into the Dark is a thing of which I can't help but approve, even if it doesn't seem to be breaking huge or anything; at bottom, it might be naught but a monthly tide of crap low-budget no-one-cares horror, but it's at least crap low-budget no-one-cares horror that comes with the Blumhouse imprimatur (which means absolutely nothing real, of course, but is somehow comforting all the same), and which is, more importantly, piped into my TV without me having to actually do anything other than hit a few buttons if I want to see it. Into the Dark is holiday themed (Pooka!'s theme being Christmas), and, as horror has so often attached itself as a novelty accessory to various holidays, this seems like a fine idea, too.
Anyway, despite being briefly intrigued by its jarring key imagery somewhere upwards of three hundred times, Pooka! didn't capture my attention until I happened to idly look it up one day and realized, with a start, that it (alone amongst its fellows) had a director I'd actually heard of. Heard of, if not necessarily like: for Nacho Vigalondo is a filmmaker I'm still not sure if I trust. Timecrimes is a barely acceptable feature-length pursuit of one really basic idea, and his previous, theatrically-released effort, Colossal, is a completely unacceptable feature-length pursuit of several various concepts, none of which even manage to qualify as an integer value of an "idea"; thus, anybody who thought these ideas or idea fragments were good foundations for movies is not someone to be blindly followed, let alone into television-analogous territory. But Vigalondo also did Open Windows, the "screenlife" film to beat (and beget) them all (if also, going by reviews for lesser attempts like Unfriended and Searching that don't even mention it, the one that nobody but me has actually seen). Happily, Pooka! is much closer to the success of Open Windows, and while it's a questionable venue for the process to take place, it at least slightly reinvigorates my interest in Vigalondo's career.
Pooka! follows the travails of Wilson (Nyasha Hatendi), an unemployed actor who's found himself drifting hopelessly through L.A. with only his aged-out starlet neighbor Red (Dale Dickey, committing fiercely to the bit) to commiserate with. After what is implied to be a very long string of failures, he finds himself at the strangest audition yet, that tests little but his ability to do repetitive, almost-ritualized motions with his arms and body, whereupon a man in a suit intervenes and declares peremptorily he's got the job, even though Wilson doesn't even know what the job is yet. When this man, Finn (Jon Daly, enthusiastic bordering on manic), shows him, Wilson doesn't like it much, but he's bound not to: it's being the body inside the fuzzy mascot suit for this holiday season's hottest new toy, Pooka, a sort of monstrous sci-fi teddy bear who repeats what you say, but with a wrinkle—sometimes he says it nicely, with friendly blue lights shining from the LED peepers on his head, and sometimes he says it with terrifying electronic distortion and demonic crimson circles for eyes instead. A gig's a gig, and Wilson takes what he's offered—it's an extraordinary amount of money for this kind of otherwise-demeaning work. Perhaps sweetening the deal, there's only one Pooka store and only one Pooka mascot, him—and in the midst of his shilling, he spies a single mom, Melanie (Latarsha Rose), with whom he'd very much like to get. By way of a few pseudo-stalkery tricks that seem a little less threatening at the time than they do later, he manages to do it. But this is unfortunate for everyone involved, because something about being Pooka is getting inside his head and changing him into something he'd really rather not be.
Well, that's the story Pooka! is telling anyway, and as long as it keeps to the basic psychological horror of its Jekyll & Hyde tale, it's kind of mildly excellent (well, mostly; even though Pooka! comes in at a very sexy 83 minutes, it still doesn't have quite enough material to fill itself out, and finds opportunities to spin its wheels as it heads towards its denouement, padding itself with a somewhat-unnecessary number of desultory "Wilson's a sick, sick man" scenes that probably do more to flatten Hatendi's otherwise-dependable performance than it deserves).
But I was saying it was mildly excellent. Sometimes it's even full-out great. Pooka itself is one marvelously creepy creation, starting with its mere plausibility as a must-have Christmas toy, indulging the kind of cutesy-creepiness that kids sometimes like; and while you can squint through a child's eyes and kind of see the magic Wilson brings to his full-sized Pooka, with the adult eyes you're probably watching Pooka! with, any grown man in a mascot suit is probably going to look unsettling, and (frankly) at least slightly deviant. Of course, this particular design is already intended to be unsettling—it's the face, in the rounded plastic rectangle of a mouth that makes Pooka look hungry, and also like he ought to be constantly drooling, and in the giant impassive eyes above it. Incapable of expressing any feeling beyond "unwanted existence" except blue-lit pleasure and red-lit rage, Pooka is a splendid enough visual metaphor for what Gerald Olson's script makes of Wilson's own limitations that I'm willing to call it "inspired."
So Pooka becomes very, very unsettling indeed as Wilson starts going off the deep end, and his alter ego starts moving by itself, red-eyed "naughty" style, though that's just for a start. (I'll just say Pooka is perhaps at its most terrifying when Wilson's just wearing the head.) The film looks and feels just about perfect, too: featuring a thrumming score by Bear McCrary, odd cutting by editor Andrew Wesman that's designed to unnerve you, with a combination of "boo!" jump cuts and long takes that are too long, and rendered by cinematographer Scott Winig in a gaudy nightmarescape of often-unmotivated colored lights that suggests that what we're experiencing is a Christmastime in hell, while also making just the "normal" Angeleno winter outside look witheringly, punishingly bright and oppressive. Pooka! is a genuinely spooky, spine-tingling thing, and that's an accomplishment for any horror film; most don't manage half that. It sometimes arrives there by being funny, and if you watched only 50 minutes or so of Pooka! and decided it was an extremely dark comedy, I'd say you called it more-or-less right; sometimes its scary bits make you laugh because your body doesn't know what else to do with the information it's providing you. Yet even its specifically satirical elements—which are substantial and often wickedly hilarious—aren't so much targeted at Yuletide commercialism as they are intended to throw you off your game even more, and put you in a giddy, but rattled, mood.
Then, perhaps inevitably, Pooka! decides it's an episode of The Twilight Zone, and honestly I don't mind that in itself (mechanically, its twist "works"), in part because as the film becomes more untethered to realism the fact that it's going to have a twist becomes pretty strongly telegraphed; meanwhile, the general shape of that twist becomes so obvious that you can't say you didn't see it coming. The problem is that the precise elements of that twist don't really fit with the precise elements of the film that's come before, so while an attempt is made, more in Vigalondo's direction than Olson's screenplay, to tie the foundational reality of Wilson's nightmare to what the movie wants to be about and actually is about (the visual possibilities of a scary children's toy mascot and the crappiness of an actor's life in L.A., and, sometimes, the toxicity of unwanted romantic obsession), none of the specifics of its first 90% and last 10% really line up at all, and what you're left with is a film that, in retrospect, is unattractively arbitrary in a way that makes you kind of angry at it for fucking with you like it has. It also makes enough references to A Christmas Carol that you'd expect them to pay off beyond thematic set-dressing.
Add in the fact that Pooka! is barely able to make its barely-feature-length runtime, and therefore finds itself obliged to do so in dishonorable ways, while somehow simultaneously not figuring out a way to use that time to do anything but to force us on a dire death march through Wilson's degeneration from Nice New Boyfriend to Possessive Monster, mostly inside what feels like a single scene, and you do have to accept that the film you started off loving is one deeply flawed object.
Even so, it does so much right that it's hard not to like it a lot, in spite of its glaring weaknesses. Perhaps not enough to call it a new Christmas horror classic, a subgenre that as far as I can tell includes Gremlins by consensus, and virtually nothing else (I mean, my list pretty much begins and ends at Black Christmas and its gonzo Black Xmas remake, and only the latter, which everyone else hates, is even particularly "Christmas-y"). But it's better than, for example, Krampus, which is so tidy in its efforts to be a new Christmas horror classic that it's just constipated and boring; and I won't say I won't be watching Pooka! again, come next December.