'Pooka!' Review: December's 'Into The Dark' Entry Is A Holiday-Tinged Tale Of Madness And Mascot Costumes

(Blumhouse Television and Hulu have partnered for a monthly horror anthology series titled Into The Dark, set to release a full holiday-themed feature the first Friday of every month. Horror anthology expert Matt Donato will be tackling the series one-by-one, stacking up the entries as they become streamable.)

As /Film's resident Christmas Horror nutcase, is it any surprise that Into The Dark's December chapter would be my most anticipated? Enter Nacho Vigalondo's Pooka!, a consumerism purgatory where struggling actor Wilson Clowes (Nyasha Hatendi) finds himself inexplicably connected to his latest gig's oversized costume. No psycho Santa, no Krampus lashings, no murder-obsessed snowmen. Gerald Olson's script is one of scorched innocence and the idea that children's toys can be impossibly terrifying when seasonal corporate greed is the only thing driving motivation. An obvious holiday theme, yet one that barely scratches the surface on Pooka!.

This Christmas season's hottest marketed toy is an unpredictable plush Furby knockoff named "Pooka." Your new best friend comes preloaded with two functions – "naughty" and "nice" – engaged at random as Pooka parrots user phrases only when it wants. "Pooka see, Pooka do, you never know what Pooka will do!" sings a colorful televised commercial, complete with gigantic dancing Pooka. Who's under the fuzzy mask? Wilson. Pooka is his big paycheck break, but the more time he spends dressed head-to-toe, the more he becomes one with Pooka's uncontrollable mood swings. He's no longer the man inside a costume – he is Pooka.

To confirm, this isn't a Child's Play killer doll slasher. Wilson's mental deterioration begins even before he's snug inside Pooka's fur. December malaise washes over hazy glances as he wallows alone in coffee shops or wrestles with his performance ambitions. It's Pooka that grants him meaning – the confidence to approach single mom Melanie (Latarsha Rose) – and also Pooka who taketh away. With the "nice" comes Pooka's "naughty," displayed when Wilson furiously pounds against his apartment walls or knocks trash off tables (in full costume).

Naughty Pooka, in representation, frames Into The Dark's most ambitious cinematography yet. This oafish, adorable-yet-deeply-unsettling fantasy beast with bug eyes and a blood-red belly circle who bobbles joyously. All fluffy and safe, until nightmare cutaways distort Pooka's voice and edit him in front of a flaming backdrop like he's commanding Lucifer's army. When Pooka is "nice," cooling blues emanate from his spotlight bulbs as excited children giggle. When "naughty," rooms fill with crimson hues that broil with rage. A towering Pooka, gut wobbling, stands in an apartment doorway while ember sound effects intensify and red filters soak all optical spaces – I love, love, love this imagery.

On the flip side, Wilson's transition into a family man and his fight against mental hardships sometimes struggles to counterbalance in-suit Pooka action (which, admittedly, there's less of than we'd hope). Pooka! teases, early on, how Wilson is fleeing from pain (re: his sudden geographical move). The farther into Pooka! time passes, the more reality frequencies fuzz and flicker like antennas with mediocre receivers. Wilson, a man who experiences withdrawal symptoms outside his Pooka shell, loses grip of everything he holds dearest. It's tragic, maddened, and challenges Christmas Horror convention by gutting dynamic household facades. Regret, dual personalities, all that. Pooka! is about how repressed memories can hit like a brick wall around the holidays, leaving behind scars slathered in motor oil and tragedy. It just...dare I say Pooka! is too ambitious a macabre winter puzzler for some?

In a lesser film, any mascot possession arc wouldn't carry emotional weight. Pooka's distributor would play a nastier role (Jon Daly as the money man who casts and manages Wilson). Instead, Pooka! becomes a character study where one man must face his mirrored self, his past – not to be outrun – and a monster-sized version of the charred Pooka doll Vigalondo's camera opens on. Meaning not yet known, reds and blues already prevalent. Pay close attention and you'll catch Wilson's world reveal itself (Dale Dickey's neighbor paralyzed by an orange-lit decorated tree). Miss these notes and risk becoming entangled in plot devices as Wilson's out-of-body assaults leave behind a tattered suit leaking white filler. A broken man dressed as the one reminder of everything he's lost; a finale face-off laced with despair and gunky Pooka sludge.

Nyasha Hatendi first appears as a studied classical actor lamenting over the tiniest variance in spoken dialogue, which sets the stage for his first audition. An empty room, no lines, asked to "hold your hands out like an offering" and "fly like a plane" to replicate Pooka's in-person dance. Hatendi is soft-spoken – compassionate and warm – upon early introductions, which opens the door for latter-half shouting fits he does not at first seem capable. Interactions between Hatendi and Dickey display mother-son companionship, setting up this humanitarian nice-guy routine only for Hatendi's strength of presence to explode as Pooka grips tighter. A sweaty, paranoid flip that strikes aggression like a driven stake with manipulative intent.

Are you seeing the parallels now? Not particularly subtle, but rooted in human insecurities versus AI frizting.

Pooka! is a bitter bite of burnt holiday sweetness, horrifying because of destructive behaviors over a rejected McDonald's play pal whose eyes blast hellish beams. While my personal preference applauds Wilson's start-to-finish journey as final moments simmer, others may fry out on existential trainwrecks. It doesn't always work – Wilson's Pooka obsession leans into expected but far-reaching connected dots – even if Vigalondo's blackened humor influences some exquisitely lit, strange blendings of "niceness" with "naughty" intent (Wilson, wearing his Pooka head, going to town on himself). Not the conventional Christmas nightmare one might expect, but sharpened enough to expose purposefully provocative seasonal traumas regarding control, regret, and the psychological toll holidays can take on those still nursing open wounds – self-inflicted or otherwise.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10