Movie Review: Pooka! On Hulu

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.

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Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You

Review: Sorry to Bother You on Hulu

Reviewed by Sumiko Saulson

Stars: 5 of 5

Sorry to Bother You is a dark comedy sci-fi horror film currently available on Hulu wherein we gradually learn that Oakland, California resident Cassius “Cash” Green, who seems to be living in the present, is actually in a future dystopia where those in debt sell themselves into slavery by signing up for a lifetime of servitude with a company called WorryFree. Cash is played by hot newcomer Lakeith Stanfield. Stanfield made his debut in on the indie film circuit 2013 and subsequently appeared in serious biopic films like Selma, Snowden, and Straight Out of Compton, but is becoming a fixture in horror films. He appeared in Purge: Anarchy, Get Out, and played the hero L in the controversial Netflix live-action take on Death Note.

Sorry to Bother You is saturated in blackness with Tessa Thompson as the love interest Detroit, Terry Crews as the financially beleaguered uncle, Jermaine Fowler and Omari Hardwick and as supporting cast members, and Danny Glover in a near-cameo appearance as Langston, the guy who teaches Cash to use his “white voice,” and Forest Whittaker as a human/horse hybrid called an equisapien. Directed and written by Boots Riley. Asian American actor Steven Yeun plays Squeeze, the overly woke union organizer who makes a play for Cash’s performance artist girlfriend Detroit after Cash begins to sell out.

The film handles issues regarding capitalism, usury, and the internal struggle many Americans face when deciding whether or not to maintain personal integrity or sell out to protect and feed one’s family with humor, grace, and a dark edginess reminiscent of the original Robocop, Johnny Mnemonic, Tank Girl and other black comedies in capitalist future dystopias.

I wouldn’t categorize it as horror if it wasn’t for the equisapiens. About halfway into the film, Cash’s descent into the dark wells of corruption takes a turn for the terrifying. It starts out with the selling out, of course. The telemarketer’s uncle is in debt and considering selling himself into a lifetime work contract that is essentially slavery to get out of it. Cash, a telemarketer, discovers he has an opportunity to save his uncle. All he has to do is join forces with WorryFree and become fine with selling other people into slavery. To complicate matters, his girlfriend has joined forces with Squeeze in protesting the poor wages at the telemarketing company they work at and boycotting WorryFree as their indentured servitude contacts are slave labor. Will he uphold the beliefs Detroit and he seemingly hold dear, or protect his family?

All of these questions are still being answered when things take a turn for the Weird Fiction neck of the woods.  While questioning his own morality, Cash attends a party hosted by the CEO of WorryFree and uncovers a terrible secret: equisapiens! They are genetically engineered horse people WorryFree intends to use to get around labor laws that restrict their complete and other disregarding human rights for contract employees. Only, there is some suggestion that these equisapiens might actually be contract employees! Now, we’re stepping into the Twilight Zone, or maybe an Outer Limits episode where Forrest Whittaker is an equisapien instead of a voice announcer.

The movie has a slower pacing like most Sundance Film Festival circuit indie art films do. It had a very short run at the major theaters before bouncing to Hulu. But it is thoroughly enjoyable and I strongly recommend checking it out.