INTO THE DARK
EPISODE 3 – POOKA
Starring: Nyasha Hatendi, Latarsha Rose, Jon Daly, Dale Dickey, Jonny Berryman
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Writer: Gerald Olson
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Into the Dark, a Blumhouse Television Production miniseries available on Hulu just released its third and best episode so far. Recall that not only would there be a horror element in these monthly episodes, but each one would be inspired by a different holiday. Its premiere episode The Body, which aired at the beginning of October, was set on Halloween night. Last month’s Flesh & Blood was inspired by Thanksgiving. And for this festive month of December, the episode is inspired by Christmas. Pooka tells the story of a man who is hired to be the live version of a new Christmas toy hitting the market. Simple right? Man wears costume, dances for kids, so what could go wrong? Well, given Into the Dark is a horror anthology, there just so happens to be lots that goes wrong.
Wilson (Nyasha Hatendi) doesn’t come across as the happiest of men. It’s clear early in the episode that something has happened to him, though the specific details are teased and slowly exposed as the story evolves. Unemployed and looking to start over, he auditions for a part, which he gets. However, the part isn’t in some movie or television show. Instead, he gets to play the role of Pooka, the latest must-have toy for Christmas. But as he gets into the costume and entertains children, not unlike a mall Santa would do, he begins to hallucinate. Or so he thinks. And as the episode progresses, the line between what’s real and what isn’t becomes blurred.
In a similar manner to Psycho, The Shining and Apocalypse Now, Pooka is about a man’s progressive mental breakdown. The dichotomy of sanity and insanity is developed throughout the episode in a variety of ways. There’s Pooka the toy, which records fragments of conversations from nearby users and then repeats them, using either a naughty or nice voice. Though the toy supposedly chooses the setting randomly, you might come to a different conclusion. Then there are its eyes which are illuminated in a bluish white light when using the nice voice and red when naughty. Of course, there’s also Wilson, the man who journeys down this hellish path. His mannerisms, progressing from soft-spoken and gentle to more aggressive teeter between normalcy and madness. And lastly, there’s the holiday itself, juxtaposing a joyous and celebratory time with elements of horror. It’s obvious, yet subtle, and it’s brilliant!
The true horror in this episode is Wilson’s breakdown. He realizes that something is wrong, but can’t pinpoint what. This growing paranoia makes him question what he sees, what he hears and what he feels. But playing Pooka offers him comfort, a safety blanket of sorts. In the costume, he’s someone else, a fictional character, one that exists to entertain children. Pooka is a superstar, yet Wilson isn’t. Nobody knows the man behind the mask, just like Wilson doesn’t know who he is. And as though his mind is trying to protect him from some deep secrets, Wilson craves this alternate identity, to the point of it threatening to take over his own.
As the episode plays out, Wilson ends up always wearing part of the costume. It’s as though a new creature has been created, just like the centaurs, mermaids or more terrifying minotaurs. And in the process, he becomes something violent and far more dangerous, to others and to himself. But who is this monster? Is it Pooka or is it Wilson? The relationship between the condition of the costume and Wilson’s awareness of his own condition is brilliant!
Nyasha Hatendi gives a great performance. His confusion and journey from a gentleman to a more frightened one who finally understands his reality is excellent. Of course, he’s surrounded by a great supporting cast. Latarsha Rose as Wilson’s love interest Melanie is wonderful. Her hesitance coupled with an innocence make her the perfect counter to Wilson’s growing paranoia. And Jonny Berryman as Melanie’s young son performs admirably. Dale Dickey, who plays Wilson’s nameless neighbor, is intriguing. Her door is always open to help Wilson, and she seems to know far more than she lets on. And lastly, there’s Jon Daly who plays Finn, the man who hires Wilson. Though he starts off as a slick-like car salesman type, he ends up being a grounded character who tries to help Wilson get a grasp on what’s real. They are an overall great cast displaying perfect chemistry.
Director Nacho Vigalondo ensures that visually, Pooka stands out. The use of colored lights works well without taking away from the horror element. Gone is the claustrophobic feel of Flesh & Blood, which if you recall, was filmed almost entirely in a house. However, a continuous focus on Wilson, with close-ups of his face, suggests a different type of claustrophobia: one inside Wilson’s mind. The use of starkly contrasting colors gives the episode the occasional dream-like feel. It’s also a way to link the realities at play.
(** A few spoilers in this paragraph. **) As opposed to the two entries prior to this one, Pooka is influenced far more by its selected holiday, Christmas. And though the story feels fresh and different, compared to the usual Christmas horror fare, some of the ideas have been seen before (The Wizard of Oz, Triangle, Jacob’s Ladder). It’s in part the reason why the astute viewer will likely figure out the ending of the episode. However, I can’t help but wonder if the ending is as final as it’s implied.
When Wilson rehearses for the audition, the lines he’s memorizing are from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Specifically, he’s learning the ones when Scrooge asks the ghost of Christmas future whether what he sees is what will be or whether what may be. And well, we know how that story turned out. Is it possible that something similar is at play here?
Pooka could have easily gone down the typical Christmas horror story road and have some Santa or other Christmas character go on some insane murder spree. Fortunately, it didn’t. Instead, we’re given a terrifying story about a man’s mental breakdown and its consequences on himself and those around him. That’s not to say there aren’t some well known and used horror elements — quite the opposite. There are bodies, there is blood, there is suspense, and there’s an axe!
A Christmas horror movie is never the all popular lift-me up feel-good movie most viewers look for during the festive season. However, as you walk through the malls, listen to the radio or watch television, you might just need a little break from the constant barrage of the regular offerings. And Pooka is an excellent alternative. The performances, especially by Nyasha Hatendi, the story and the visual approach taken make this the strongest Into the Dark entry so far, and one worth watching.