Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the third episode of Into the Dark, “Pooka!”
Merry Christmas from Into the Dark: It’s time to have toy nightmares! Helmed by Colossal filmmaker and perennial anthology standout Nacho Vigalondo, with a script from Gerald Olson, “Pooka!” puts yet another spin on the monster movie: this time, by utilizing our unknowable potential for monstrousness to make one really fucked-up Furby.
Pooka is a pear-shaped, rabbit-eared, moth-eyed little bastard that repeats your words and is generally terrifying before the episode even starts heading down the inevitable path to madness. Wilson (Nyasha Hatendi) is an actor cast to represent the toy by wearing a mascot costume of the naughty-or-nice little alien… with the disturbing sidenote that the life-sized version of the toy somehow came first.
Vigalondo used Anne Hathaway’s self-destructive tendencies to draw a connection between his Colossal kaiju; in “Pooka!” the personality-splitting antics are tied to costumes, masks, and voices—as if the actor inside the Barney costume were afflicted, à la Venom, by a purple dinosaur. Like most horror anthology entries, its endearing premise counts for a lot. But there’s more to it than the logline, something Into the Dark is getting better at, episode after episode. With visual extremes of red and blue, Vigalondo’s detached, grotesquely cold camera digs such deep valleys between characters, shoveling the excess over the line between sanity and madness, that accepting the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic isn’t a choice.
A disturbing audition—with the feverish melding of spectacle, artistry, obedience, and otherworldliness that links ritual and magic—is one of the better pieces of choreography and editing in the episode, making it feel not just sinister, but antagonistic. And yet, always finding duality, the script emphasizes that acting (remember “costumes, masks, and voices”?), is a willingness to give yourself up and accept something else in its place: The resistance to a parasite or an invader doesn’t exist. You welcome the new identity, like opening the door to a burglar—embodied in “Pooka!” by Dale Dickey’s odd, off-kilter, icy-hot performance as Wilson’s neighbor.
Using the Harvey Fierstein-esque rasp most talking toys develop as their batteries run low, Vigalondo splits the alt-personalities even further. Pooka can be kind or evil—as “Pooka!” can both use and abuse its cliches—until the difference becomes both indecipherable and irrelevant. Even when the L.A.-set story takes a rote romantic detour, it’s still a matter of masks and layers guarding a complex reality, thanks to the monster lurking in the corner. Did I mention that the monster masturbates in said corner? Vigalondo is no stranger to upsetting imagery and here he creates some of the series’ least palatable yet. (It’s a good thing, I promise.)
What’s not as good is how deeply Wilson loses himself in the Pooka suit. An actor adrift, looking to hold onto something, he not only loses himself in his role—he loses himself to his role. It’s a fascinating metaphor for lacking a solid sense of self, especially in a career that asks for constant redefinition and total dedication. The dark side of this, explored in plenty of stories where characters “lose time” or otherwise break down, has an added antagonist in the unexplainable emblem of Christmas capitalism that is Pooka.
As Pooka takes over, the excellent Hatendi spreads a fine layer of cruelty and desperation on his milquetoast, making the danger feel utterly real simply because Wilson feels capable of anything. The intensity and terror in the episode comes mostly from the human element, something always intentionally undercutting Vigalondo’s monsters. (Though the monsters certainly aren’t slouches, either.) While it’s not especially tight—even when the cuts, transitions, and timelines are vague and strange on purpose—and opts for a few stilted narrative shortcuts, “Pooka!” is certainly the first time Into the Dark has filled up its tank with genuine nightmare fuel.
Into the Dark’s “Pooka!” is now streaming on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.