The holidays bring up a plethora of emotional changes and none can really hold a candle to the mood swings some of us encounter during the Christmas holiday season. What is more horrifying than dealing with the end of the year, existential pressure, and dealing with the baggage of family? With so much inspiration to pull from the stress inducing holiday season, it is no surprise to see Hulu’s new horror anthology series INTO THE DARK tackle Christmas in the oddly pleasing episodic film POOKA!
I’ll start off by making a general disclaimer full of gratitude. I am immensely grateful for anthology series because you can start anywhere within the series and not feel like you have a load of catching up to do. With no real prior knowledge of INTO THE DARK, knowing that I didn’t have to speed through two additional episodes in order to grasp what was going on made the overall experience much more enjoyable. Now onto the mighty POOKA!
The episodic film begins in a disjointed fashion. We see the flashing of police lights and a fallen POOKA! doll on the ground. The beaten doll starts to speak, “Look at the pretty lights.” Like a prayer, it repeats itself as the camera then pans to the worn out face of Wilson (Nyasha Hatendi). The audience immediately is forced into a heightened state wondering what exactly is going on before we are led to a scene of normality. The first couple of minutes creates a state of uncertainty that sets the mood for the entire episode and is sure to bring the viewer in almost immediately.
From the introduction we are introduced to Wilson and his plight. Wilson is a struggling actor who has just recently moved into a new apartment building and is hoping to get himself back up on his feet. While attending an audition for a role in Christmas Carol, it actually turns out to be an audition to play the suited version of what is estimated to be the most popular Christmas toy launching that year. At first, Wilson thinks nothing of acquiring the role. In fact, he protests the quality of the job. However, he acquiesces. Unfortunately, POOKA! has other things in mind as the suit slowly takes over Wilson, creating a clear separation between the Wilson outside of the suit and the Wilson within the suit.
Now POOKA! isn’t like the typical horror film where you feel outright scared. If you’re looking for jump scares, this isn’t the episode for you. Instead, expect to be unsettled as you try to follow along with the gradual disjointedness that takes hold of Wilson as he maneuvers in and out of reality. The way the scenes are directed and written thanks to the talented director Nacho Vigalondo and screenwriter Gerald Olson greatly contribute to that sense of confusion and unease. And it works! Just when you think things start to make sense, the carpet is swept out from under you. It isn’t until the last twenty minutes of the episode that things truly begin to make sense. The lack of predictability makes it arguably the most exciting component for me.
I can’t reveal too much without encroaching into significant spoiler territory, but I will say that this episode also carries a couple of messages that I think many viewers will try to unpack. And I don’t think the messages would have landed as well as they did without the emotional lifting of Hatendi as well as his supporting cast mates who helped bring out the parts in Wilson that he so desperately tried to hide. I would definitely recommend watching the episode just for watching Hatendi’s emotional range alone because it ranges from subtle to explosive and it is really exciting to observe.
Overall, POOKA! is a fairly decent horror episode film written for the holiday horror genre. Despite the Black Friday style shopping shenanigans and the various references to Christmas, it doesn’t feel like what I’d imagine a holiday horror film to be. The focus was on a lot more than the holiday and the giant POOKA! suit running around to do naughty things. It dealt more with the introspection of self when faced with the consequences of one’s actions. A lesson that I think many of us can continue to try to think about in this modern era.
The new Christmas-themed episode POOKA! launches on Hulu on December 7.