Review: Pooka! On Hulu
Reviewed by Sumiko Saulson
Stars: 4 of 5
Pooka is a strangely haunting Christmas horror tale about an out of work actor, Wilson Clowes portrayed by Nyasha Hatendi. Hatendi is an African American actor born in the USA but raised in Zimbabwe, the USA and the UK who is fluent in three languages – English, French, and Shona. He gives a nuanced performance as mentally troubled and alcoholic washed-up actor Wilson Clowes.
Wilson is very much down on his luck when he gets the offer of a lifetime – a job voicing the adorable dark-furred, giant-eyed new holiday sensation Pooka! A child’s stuffed animal that speaks and movies like a Furbie or Teddy Ruxpin, the gimmicky holiday toy speaks in either a naughty or a nice voice, telling the child sweet or entirely wicked things. It seems to be a reference to Santa’s naughty or nice list, but pooka is an alternate spelling for púca, a type of Celtic woodland fey creature.
Although the film never explicitly says that Pooka is the creature from Irish lore, it looks and acts like the creature and bears its name. Púca are spirits that can be either beneficial or harmful to humans they encounter, they are like gremlins – full of mischief – but are also known to help farmers by assisting with chores. They have the power of human speech, and can take on human form, imitating them as changelings.
The toy manufacturer encourages Wilson to really get into character and put his all into Pooka. He dresses in a giant Pooka costume and acts in commercials in addition to voicing the toy, and he eventually becomes complete obsessed with the thing and the costume. It initially seems that he is having some sort of nervous breakdown, but as the toy skyrockets to fame and becomes the seasonal “it” thing, it becomes increasingly obvious that something dark and very supernatural is going on.
Then, Wilson meets a girl. Melanie Burns (Latarsha Rose) and her son Ty (Jonny Berryman) meet Wilson in a Christmas tree lot in one of those made-for-television magic moments seen in Lifetime movies and Tyler Perry films about black family love. The scene is so evocative of those types of films that one momentarily forgets this is a horror film and is drawn into the melodrama revolving around Melanie, Wilson, and Ky. Melanie, a spiffy black businesswoman, is a real estate agent and a single mother who has left Ky’s abusive father. Will she fall in love with the hard-luck case in spite of his relative poverty? Will he be the perfect stepfather for Ky? Will true love conquer all?
Then you remember, no. Of course, it won’t. This is a horror movie. And that’s about when Wilson starts to hallucinate all the time, rant and rave, and completely fall apart. The more Wilson declines, the more Pooka rises, so that the actor’s career is on an upswing as he enters his nervous breakdown.
Since the costume and Wilson act and interact separately and together, it is not clear at times whether the evil emanates from the creature or the actor. The actor is contractually forbidden from letting anyone know that he is the one and only Pooka, and he lives with the costume, acting increasingly psychotic and dangerous.
A series of violent episodes occur between Pooka and Wilson’s roommate, a stranger in a bar, and finally involving a woman he has begun dating named Melanie and her child Ky. Ky loves Pooka and Wilson at first – but then Wilson begins acting more and more like Ky’s abusive and absent father, a man Melanie broke up with for being abusive.
Then, a malfunction makes the creature act bizarre, saying the line “look at all the pretty lights” repeatedly for no reason. Is Wilson making Pooka malfunction, or is it Pooka making Wilson malfunction? That is a question that isn’t answered until the end of the movie, when the meaning of the phrase “look at all the pretty lights” is revealed. But when the toy is taken off the market, Wilson plummets further and further into madness and becomes increasingly dangerous.
The movie deals more than passingly with the subjects of domestic violence and child abuse, but remains primarily in the horror mode despite brief excursions into the Twilight Zone and Lifetime holiday movies about broken families. In a way, the Oyxgen/After School TV Special romance between Melanie and Wilson is what is most brilliant about the film. One can’t help but cape for the man and his nascent romance with the likeable Melanie before it all goes to hell.
An episode of the holiday-themed web horror anthology Into the Dark, Pooka is currently running on Hulu as a single horror film. Although it started as a webcast, the production values of it are television quality, and it comes off as a PBS or BBC quality production in terms of pacing, acting, direction, and technical quality.