It’s here – that special time of year when I drink eggnog, watch the Star Wars Holiday Special, and try to find some new Christmas horror or crime movies that hit the spot. This year I watched one that’s a distant cousin of the killer doll movie.
In fact, the kind of doll that’s a Christmas present. POOKA! (2018) fulfills the important holiday horror movie duty of having lots of seasonal content. It centers around this Christmas season fad toy. Multiple scenes take place at a Christmas tree lot. The protagonist practices a monologue from A Christmas Carol for an acting audition, and the story includes a supernaturally-looking-back-at-your-life aspect vaguely similar to that or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. There’s a (weirdly birthday-like) Christmas party. And lots of red and green lights. So it does the trick.
Wilson Clowes (Nyasha Hatendi, THE FRONT RUNNER, Alex Rider) is an unemployed actor in L.A., his background unclear. He spends his days alone, watching families be happy together, but he makes a friend when he introduces himself to his neighbor down the hall Red (Dale Dickey, DOMINO). I like how his apartment looks ragged and bare bones but hers looks nice because she’s obviously lived there for many years and made it her home. She seems fun.
He takes a flyer for an audition, goes through a bizarre process at a warehouse, ends up getting the job. His new boss Finn (Jon Daly, “Bill Murray,” A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE) excitedly shows him a toy called Pooka that records your voice at unpredictable intervals and repeats phrases back to you in either nice mode (high pitched) or naughty mode (low pitched). He doesn’t consider it acting but gets talked into the gig of wearing a costume of Pooka, starring in a commercial and then taking photos with kids at a pop up store where for some reason they have a limited number of dolls they can sell each day. (I’m unclear if this is only a local phenomenon; they treat Wilson as the Pooka, not one of many regional Pookas.)
One day Wilson sees Melanie (Latarsha Rose, THE HUNGER GAMES) and her son Ty (Jonny Berryman, “Gas Station Boy #2,” LUCY IN THE SKY) among the people turned away for Pooka dolls. He’s had a crush on her since seeing her at a Christmas tree lot, and he finds out she’s a real estate agent, so he pretends to be interested in buying a house as a way to ask her out. Yes, sounds like maybe the most terrible dating idea possible, but it seems to work out for him. (And it’s never addressed whether he was lying out of his ass, or whether the Pooka gig does pay well enough that he could’ve bought it.)
For some reason he doesn’t tell her about his job, but impresses Ty by getting him a Pooka and then by showing up at his Pooka-themed Christmas party wearing the costume. They don’t actually know it’s him in the costume, which is convenient since he beats up a little kid at the party.
See, the other thing going on in his life is that Pooka seems to draw out his naughty mode and/or attract doppelgangers. Either Wilson in the Pooka costume, or the costume by itself, smashes up his apartment. He doesn’t seem to know which. He’s having visions and nightmares, thinking he/Pooka killed Red, or seeing a Pooka that’s not him that’s doing bad things. He also starts being an asshole, gets dumped by Melanie, and loses the job.
There’s a nice creepy/funny overlap moment when his way of trying to win back Melanie is to leave a Pooka doll on her doorstep that repeats his rambling apology to her. She looks out the window and sees him peek out from behind a telephone pole – in the costume. Soon he gets beat up and loses the mask and is running around town in just the bottom part of the costume, all torn up, as he tries to stop the Pooka from haunting him.
I liked that Wilson starts out seeming like a dork but fairly relatable, then he seems sincere but pushy in his pursuit of Melanie, then he starts being a crazy dick and I thought oh geez, I shouldn’t have been cutting him any slack, this guy sucks. I noticed his accent shifting a few times and wondered if it was Wilson being an acting nerd, but it may just be that Hatendi grew up in the United States, UK and Zimbabwe. Whatever it is I think it works – this guy never seems very comfortable with himself, and it’s unsettling.
I’m gonna go ahead and assume the name Wilson Clowes is a reference to the cartoonist Daniel Clowes, whose graphic novel Wilson was made into a pretty good movie that seemingly no one ever saw besides me. I would not say this is as interesting as Clowes’ work, but I can see a parallel in its cold but non-judgmental depiction of a lonely, flawed person in a somewhat random-feeling story with weirdos and surrealism occasionally popping up in a bland semi-urban neighborhood.
This is an implied ENDING SPOILER but POOKA! could also be compared to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, if you know what I mean. This is welcome because by the end it had lost me, started to feel like repetitive weirdness without purpose, and I do think it goes on for too long. But the ending makes sense of it all and won me back.
This is not discussed in the movie at all, but it seems Pooka comes from a creature from Irish mythology, also spelled púca – a shapeshifter that turns into different animals, including hares. Robin Goodfellow, a.k.a. Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is apparently one of them, and (more relevant here) so is Harvey in the play and movie HARVEY. POOKA!’s interpretation of the creature is the best part of the movie. Usually a fake toy in a movie either looks like some dumb bullshit kids wouldn’t really give a shit about, or like too much of a copy of an existing toy. But this thing, sort of a Furby/Teletubby hybrid with color-changing headlight eyes, a weird slot mouth and a cryptic O on his belly has the right balance of weird and cute. And he looks good in apocalyptic visions where he has flames in his eyes.
POOKA! is directed by Nacho Vigalondo (who directed TIMECRIMES and COLOSSAL, but I also know him as the villain in CAMINO) and written by Gerald Olson (BACK TO SCHOOL MOM). It’s a production of Blumhouse Television, and is technically “3rd episode of the 1st season of Into the Dark,” but it’s an 83 minute stand alone movie and Into the Dark only exists on Hulu, so for our purposes it’s just another streaming movie. Though this is the best Into the Dark I’ve seen and I still didn’t totally love it, I think this is a good thing to exist – Blumhouse can give filmmakers a chance to play around with ideas that have no expectation of being as commercial as THE NUN or M3GAN. How would they have advertised POOKA!? I don’t know. But this is streaming, nobody has to ever watch it, who gives a fuck. So you can make this and then you can make a sequel. Which they did!
POOKA LIVES! (2020) unfortunately is not a Christmas movie. But it’s a cool approach to franchising because it takes the Pooka doll and puts it in a totally different type of horror movie. We really don’t know how much of the first film was even reality, ayway. They just keep the doll and its ad (starring Wilson?).
In this one we meet the creator of Pooka, Ellie Burges (Rachel Bloom, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), who flips out about the company’s plan to change the doll and when her husband (Wil Wheaton, THE LAST STARFIGHTER) yells at her she puts on a Pooka mask, stabs him to death with sewing scissors, and lights herself on fire.
A year later we meet our new protagonist Derrick (Malcolm Barrett, THE HURT LOCKER), who’s definitely not as bad as Wilson, but has a similarl uneasiness. It’s indicated that he did something that has caused him to be cancelled and harassed online, so he left New York City to stay with his high school friends Molly (Felicia Day, BRING IT ON: AGAIN) and Matt (Jonah Ray, VICTOR CROWLEY, CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS) and take a job writing copy for the company that makes Pooka. The job reunites him with his ex who he hasn’t gotten over and who luckily is still single and doesn’t hate him, Susan (Lyndie Greenwood, EVERY TIME A BELL RINGS, HOLIDAY HERITAGE, MAGIC IN MISTLETOE).
The idea of people recognizing Derrick and hating him is intriguing until the reason is revealed: he wrote a book about “online personalities,” so some obnoxious Youtube prank guy called Jax (Motoki Maxted) talks shit about him in his videos? I guess it’s believable enough since it’s young people who keep asking him “are you that guy?” and egging his house, but I don’t really buy that a guy who writes books would see that as disappointing and career ending and have to start his life over.
While the group of old friends are hanging out, Derrick comes up with an idea of starting an online myth or “creepypasta” as the young people and IMDb annoyingly call it (thankfully these characters are older and do not) about Pooka. They take the real story of Ellie Burges’ murder-suicide and treat her as a Bloody Mary figure who you can summon by eating some ash and doing the Pooka dance (as seen in the first movie) and song. It spreads so fast that right away even Jax is taking the Pooka Challenge on his channel. Unfortunately this is a good demonstration of how annoying it is to see montages of fictional memes “going viral.” If you every plan to make a movie or TV show about something getting popular on the internet, please realize that there is a cap to how believable or entertaining you’ll be able to make it and it’s down there pretty low.
But the concept is kind of cool that, in the tradition of your Freddys and your Candymen and what not, the ghost of Ellie is given power by people believing in her. And our characters begin to be stalked by burning Ellies or people in Pooka masks or actual Pookas. And due to Susan’s work assignment to re-design the Pooka and/or the fact that this is a sequel it now has a more humanoid monster sort of look. Maybe too close to the bunny from DONNIE DARKO now. But I like that it’s a hairy beast with light bulbs for eyes.
POOKA LIVES! is directed by Alejandro Brugués (JUAN OF THE DEAD, SATANIC HISPANICS) and written by Ryan Copple. I don’t think it’s as good as the first one, and obviously right now I would’ve preferred it being Christmas-y (it was meant to be the Easter episode of Into the Dark, I guess). But I did enjoy the way they took the doll and made a totally different thing out of it. I would be down for another totally different one.